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The Twelve Days of Christmas

December 11, 2020
WHAT’S OLD IS NEW AGAIN
ANNE PACKARD


It is not known who wrote the original “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” but it is thought to have started as a children’s memory game with each verse being said on the appropriate day after Christmas and the entirety of the song to be known on the twelfth day. Players of the game who made an error were required to pay a penalty, usually in the form of a kiss or sweet confection. The best-known English version was first printed in 1780 in a book intended for children entitled “Mirth without Mischief,” and other versions can be found throughout Europe and North America.

The 12 days of Christmas last from Christmas morning until Epiphany, which falls on January 6 and celebrates the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child, and thus the physical manifestation of the Messiah to the Gentiles. Epiphany is one of the three major Christian celebrations and is considered as important as Christmas and Easter but is often overshadowed by the Christmas season. In 567, the Council of Tours “proclaimed the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany as a sacred and festive season, and established the duty of Advent fasting in preparation for the feast.” Popular Epiphany customs included Epiphany singingchalking the door, having one’s house blessed, consuming Three Kings Cakewinter swimming, as well as attending church services. It was customary for Christians in many localities to remove their Christmas decorations on Epiphany Eve (Twelfth Night).

Christians in modern times who celebrate the 12 days may give gifts on each of them, with each of the 12 days representing a wish for a corresponding month of the New Year. They may feast on traditional foods, light a candle for each day, sing the verse of the corresponding day from the famous “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” and light a yule log on Christmas Eve, letting it burn more on each of the twelve nights. For some, the Twelfth Night remains the night of the most festive parties and exchanges of gifts while other households exchange gifts on the first (December 25) and last (January 5) days of the 12 days. As in former times, the Twelfth Night to the morning of Epiphany is the traditional time during which Christmas trees and decorations are removed.

The joy and light of the Christmas season are needed now more than ever due to the grim realities 2020 has brought into our lives. Christmas carols took over the radio a little earlier than usual and decorations were hung by the chimney with care before turkey leftovers were finished.

This is why we, in the South Georgia Conference, should celebrate the 12 days of Christmas even more joyfully this holiday season. This ancient, sacred time of faith, hope, and love will allow the Christmas season to truly live in our hearts and minds a little longer no matter what the New Year holds. And as we enjoy each day of the twelve days, may we pray for corresponding joy and laughter in the months to come.

So, hold fast, members of the Methodist movement in South Georgia. The darkest days may yet be before us as the dark winter nights close in, but so is the promise of the light, the eternal, everlasting love, and the promises only God through his son Jesus Christ can offer.

Anne Packard serves as Conference Historian and director of the Arthur J. Moore Methodist Museum on St. Simons Island. Contact her at director@mooremuseum.org.

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