Monday, December 26, 2011


A Cozy Fire Beside the Christmas Tree
Hello My Friend and Welcome.

Christmas may have come and gone, but the Christmas Season continues and so do our Christmas posts.

Christmas Day, known as the Day of Nativity in the Eastern Church, begins with the vigil Mass on Christmas Eve. However, Christmas lasts more than just a day; it's also a season, traditionally known as Christmastide. Unlike the mercantile Christmas season which begins sometime between Halloween and Thanksgiving and ends at midnight December 25th so as not to intrude on the after-Christmas sales beginning on December 26th  the tradional Christmas season extends well beyond just a single day.

Christmastide, however, has always lasted from December 25th until the Baptism of our Lord, which is celebrated the Sunday following the Epiphany. Nestled within Christmastide are two traditional festive seasons: the Octave of Christmas and the Twelve Days of Christmas. The Octave of Christmas (from the Latin octava, meaning eight) finds its roots in the Old Testament where many of the Hebrew feasts and festivals lasted for eight days. The Festival of Tabernacles, Sukkoth, and the Festival of Light, Chanukah, are two examples. Today the Church honors two festive seasons with an Octave, Easter and Christmas.

The Octave of Christmas runs from December 25th until January 1st...eight days inclusive. The eighth, and final, day of the Octave is the feast of the circumcision. As stipulated in the Torah, the rite of circumcision, or Brit miloh was performed and the infant boy named, when he was eight days old. (Leviticus 12.3) Interestingly enough, the clotting factor only becomes active eight days after birth.
Victorian Carolers in Full Regalia
The Twelve Days of Christmas are counted from Christmas Day until the eve of the Epiphany, January 5th. Several notable feast days occur during this period. The first of these is the Feast of St. Stephen which occurs the day after Christmas. Known as Boxing Day throughout the British Empire, it draws its name from the alms box in which worshippers deposited a gift for the poor when they attended church on Christmas day.

St. Stephen, you will recall, was one of the first deacons and his task was to make the daily distribution of food to the believers. The morning after Christmas, December 26th, the alms box was opened and the gifts distributed. We learn that this custom was not restricted to the British Isles from the Carol depicting a 10th Century Bohemian King distributing alms to the poor: Good King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen…”

St. John the Evangelist, commemorated on December 27, is the only one of the twelve Apostles who did not die as a martyr. Rather, John witnessed to the Incarnation through his words, turning Greek philosophy on its head with his affirmation, "The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us." (John 1:14).

On December 28, we celebrate the feast of the Holy Innocents, the children murdered by Herod. These were not martyrs like Stephen, who died heroically with a vision of the glorified Christ. They were not inspired as John was to speak the Word of life and understand the mysteries of God. They died unjustly before they had a chance to know or to will — but they died for Christ nonetheless.

In these Holy Innocents we see the agony of any who suffer and die through human injustice, never knowing that they have been redeemed. In them, we remember the victims of abortion, of war, abuse, and injustice. We renew our faith that the coming of Christ brings hope to the most hopeless. And, in the most radical way possible, we confess that like these murdered children we are saved by the sheer mercy of Christ, not by our own doing.
Shakespeare's Twelfth Night
The Twelve Days of Christmas ends on the eve of the Epiphany or, as it is appropriately called, the Twelfth Night. During the Middle Ages the Twelve Days of Christmas became a time of revelry and foolishness. The Shakespearean play Twelfth Night is built around this celebration of Christmas madness and features one of his many wise fools who understand the real meaning of life better than those who think they are sane.

In the United States, the celebration of the Epiphany has unfortunately become a moveable feast. It now comes on the Sunday between January 2nd and January 8th, which has lessened the awareness and festive significance of the 12 days.

And finally, while most everyone is familiar with the song The Twelve Days of Christmas very few people are aware that it is, in fact, an allegorical rhyme designed as a memory aid. The date of the song's first performance has been lost to history, but it is found in European and Scandinavia traditions as early as the 16th century. This was a period of religious persecution and each of the items in the song represents a significant piece of Christian teaching. The hidden meaning of each of the twelve gifts was designed to help children learn their faith.

The repetitive nature of the song and the way it correlates the number of days and quantity of items makes it easy to remember and repeat even by the youngest child.  The items themselves seem just eccentric enough, especially to modern ears, to make them memorable as well.

Examining the song’s allegorical underpinnings, we find that the True Love referred to in the song is God Himself. Meanwhile, the me who receives all of these wonderful presents is every baptized person. Mentally sing it again incorporating this new understanding of the words.

1st Day: The partridge in a pear tree is Christ Jesus upon the Cross.
2nd Day: The two turtle doves represent the Old and New Testaments.
3rd Day: The three French hens stand for Faith, Hope and Love.
4th Day: The four calling birds are the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
5thDay: The five golden rings represent the first five books of the Bible, also called the Jewish Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus,  Numbers and Deuteronomy.
6th Day: The six geese a-laying are the six days of creation.
7th Day: The seven swans a-swimming refers to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety and Fear of the Lord.
8th Day: The eight maids a-milking remind children of the eight beatitudes enumerated in the the           Sermon on the Mount.
9th Day: The nine ladies dancing represented the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit found in Galatians: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self Control.
10th Day: The ten lords a-leaping are the Ten Commandments.
11th Day: The eleven pipers piping refers to the eleven faithful Apostles.
12th Day: The twelve drummers drumming are the twelve points of belief expressed in the Apostles' Creed: Belief in God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, that Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, Made man, Crucified, Died and rose on the third day, that He sits at the right hand of the father and will come again, the Resurrection of the Dead, and Life Everlasting.

One of the recurring themes of Christmas is its central place in most family traditions. Over time families have developed individual practices about particular foods, the time when the tree is decorated or when the presents are opened, how the Nativity set is arranged, and so on. None of these practices are good or bad. The important thing is the sense of cohesiveness and continuity they provide for children. It’s surprising how often a discussion of Christmas around the water cooler devolves into a sharing of childhood memories.

An oft heard phrase these days is Pay it Forward. There’s no better opportunity to do just that than filling your children’s lives with many happy memories of Christmas. Don’t be afraid to start a tradition or two of your own. Someday they’ll thank you for it.

Next time we’ll take a look at the Christmas Shepherds

Until then, we wish you Peace and Blessings.

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1 comment:

Sheila Deeth said...

Wonderful. Thank you! (i've put links on twitter, facebook and google.)