How to Celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas
We are all familiar with the song about the 12 Days of Christmas and what her true love gave her. But, did you know that the Medievals celebrated the twelve days of Christmas? Before we get into how to celebrate the twelve days as a family a couple premises needs be noted:
Premise 1: The Nativity of Christ is worth 12 Days of Celebration
My wife and I, after converting to the Catholic Church, realized that we wasted many years trying to celebrate Christmas, but really doing it quite poorly. The Incarnation is the greatest gift to mankind. It cannot be celebrated in one day or two stat holidays. The Church has always known this and for centuries gave us an Octave (8 days) in which to celebrate Christmas. Local custom expanded this further into twelve days. The question for my wife and I was how to celebrate this season well or in a way that was worthy of the gift.
2nd Premise: Celebration is a time for the superfluous. Joseph Pieper in his book Leisure: the Basis of Culture explains this well. True celebration is rooted in worship. From worship of God there grows thanksgiving, generosity and extravagance simply for the sake of the celebration - because it is worthy of it.
What follows is the Biffert family traditions for the Twelve Days of Christmas (the goal is to open something special, eat something special, do something special every day).
I wont' spend too much time here. Everyone has their own traditions for this day. We don't turn on any Christmas lights until after the Christ Mass. We come home in darkness. Then Mommy, representing Mary, brings the light into our world by lighting the Christ candle. Then we process to each creche in the home putting Jesus in the manger and singing. Finally, we end at the tree. We turn on the lights for the first time and I bless the tree with holy water. The night continues with the Christmas goodies, kinder punch, glühwein and so forth. We try and purchase a new Christmas book each year and that is added to the rest all laid out for the children.
We begin with a family rosary and though all the presents are under the tree, we only open the stocking stuffers and one gift. This is a family day of games, singing, eating, Christmas dinner with Mommy's china and so on and so forth.
Boxing Day (St. Stephen's Day):
We begin with a family rosary, the children open up their gift from one of their grandparents, and we sing some Christmas carols. On this day, I will make homemade eggnog that will last us for a couple days. This is also the day where we go through the house, the kids' bedrooms and begin to 'box' up all the stuff they don't need and we give it to goodwill. And of course we sing the song of Good King Wenceslas.
Third Day of Christmas (St. John the Beloved):
The tradition here is take a special bottle of wine, blessed by the priest (or at least the father of the home) and share it with the family. We pray the rosary, open our gifts from the other Grandparents and try to do something fun as a family (skating, snowboarding, sledding).
Fourth Day of Christmas (Feast of the Holy Innocents):
This the day the children give their gifts to each other (after we pray the rosary of course). Then they get to choose dinner and a special outing and a movie in the evening. A day to honour children!
Fifth Day of Christmas (Feast of St. Thomas Becket):
This day, we learn about St. Thomas Becket, read Murder in the Cathedral and/or watch Becket. By this time we are ready to leave our house and see other people. So we plan to host another family. This day, the children get their second gift from their parents.
Sixth Day of Christmas: Churching Day:
Churching is the prayer that the mother receives after having a baby. This still happens in the old Latin rite. In the Medieval days, Churching Day was a day when all the ladies who had children that year were blessed at the Mass. In our family, Mommy gets churched at the baby's baptism. So, on this day we say a blessing over Mommy. Our gifts this day are 'outdoor' gifts or rather outdoor hiking/camping gear. We are slowly building up our children's hiking and backpacking gear and use this day to do so.
7th Day of Christmas: New Year's Eve:
For New Year's we have a different set of baking that needs to be done that comes from my Dutch heritage. Of course, this is a day to celebrate with friends and family. We also take time to make individual, family and marriage goals for the year. We review last year's goals and make new ones.
Mary Mother of God
The Octave ends with the obligatory feast of Mary Mother of God. This day is a day of rest. The children get audio books. We recover a bit from New years and get ready for the big celebration of 12th Night.
9th Day of Christmas: Dancing Day:
I've only seen one Medieval story that mentioned this day as Dancing Day, but it works for us. We give the children dancing lessons! Swing, waltz or learn a line dance together. On this day we also give only a family gift: a new game for all of us to learn and play. We love playing board games as a family!
10th Day of Christmas: Adam's Day:
The gift today is a date with dad. We head out into the wilderness and snowshoe, x-country ski, sled or any such thing.
11th Day of Christmas: Eve's Day:
And this day is a date with Mom. The children and her head out to the movie theatre and enjoy the entertainment with lots of treats.
This is the big one! We invite 50-70 people over for a campfire, wassailing, Christmas carolling and much mirth. Each family makes a dish that represents the song The 12 Days of Christmas and we try to guess which dish goes with which day. We end with a cake that has a prize hidden in it. The winner is crowned King/Queen for the year and celebrated!
As this day celebrates the Three Wisemen, we follow the traditional actions of marking the house door frames with 20 C+M+B 20 (2020, Casper, Malthus, Balthasar), invoke their prayers and bless the house with holy water. Gifts received this day are of a spiritual nature - missal, rosary, saint book etc.
And then we rest. Whew! Merry Christmas!