The Twelve Days of Christmas
The commemoration of the Nativity of our Lord, the Baptism of our Lord, and the events related to them developed over time in the life and practice of the Church. Originally celebrated together on the same day, their celebrations - and the sequence of 12 days in between them - offers the faithful a festal period of great joy.
Glory to You, O Christ our God, glory to You!
May Christ our True God, whose Nativity we celebrate, through the intercessions of His holy and pure Mother, through the power of the life giving Cross, through the protection of the Angelic Powers, through the prayers of St. John the Baptist, the supplications of the Holy Apostles, Martyrs, Fathers and Mothers of our Faith, and all the saints, have mercy on us and save us.
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God have mercy on us and save us.
We have ornaments for each of the twelve days that follow the old catechetical song. Each day we hang up the relevant ornament and discuss the theological truth for the day.
We also continue our Jesse Tree through the twelve days and discuss the historical events that they depict.
As they designated dates to commemorate events in Jesus’ life, the early Christian Church selected January 6 as the date to observe both the birth and baptism of Christ. In the early 4th century it was felt by the church leadership that a distinction should be made between the two observances. They selected Dec 25 to be the date to celebrate the birth of Christ and kept Jan 6 to be the baptism.
The selection of Dec 25 also addressed a second issue. The end of December was filled with pagan gatherings and festivities (in honor of the “sun god” as he became victorious over the “god of darkness” as the days slowly began to become longer (the winter solstice). Christians were falling back to pagan temptations with these festivities, thus the church fathers wanted to provide them with their own reason to celebrate. This reason of course became the birth of the Son of God (who made the sun).
The Liturgical Period
Once Christmas arrives on December 25, we enter a new liturgical period. The major period runs 40 days, from Jesus' Birth to His 40 day Presentation to the Temple (Feb 2).
From December 25 to January 6, we have the “12 days of Christmas” that link the birth of Christ with His baptism, a festal period of great joy and celebration. Over time, January 6 began to be called the “little Christmas.”
We also have the 7 day Christmastide which is part of the 12 Days of Christmas, focusing on immediate events up to His naming & Circumcision on the 8th day (January 1).
January 6 is officially called the Baptism of our Lord – Theophany (sometimes called Epiphany). Theophany means “God’s appearance” and Epiphany simply “appearance”. On the day of Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Trinity was made manifest with the appearance of the dove and the voice that was heard from the sky (Matt 3:13 – 17).
The Roman Catholic Church later moved the celebration of the arrival of the Wise men to 6 January and the feast of the Baptism to the Sunday after January 6. In the East, the arrival of the Wise men is celebrated on the same day as Christ's birth.