Sure, you’ve heard the song, but did you know that the “12 days of Christmas” actually start on Christmas Day (Dec. 25) and go until the day before Epiphany (Jan. 5)? This mini-season of the Church calendar is also known as “Christmastide”!
So, December 25 is the first day of Christmas. December 26 is the second day. And so on, until the twelfth day of Christmas on January 5, followed by the feast of the Epiphany on January 6!
When is Christmastide? What are the 12 Days of Christmas?
Christmastide is the liturgical season that spans from the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord (which we commonly call Christmas day, Dec. 25) to Epiphany Eve (Jan. 5, commonly called Twelfth Night—yes, like the Shakespeare play).
Here are the 12 days. Days in bold are the Holy Days (AKA Red-Letter Days) observed by the Anglican Church in North America
- The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ (Dec. 25, one of seven Principal Feasts)
- Stephen, Deacon and Martyr (Dec. 26)
- John, Apostle and Evangelist (Dec. 27)
- The Holy Innocents (Dec. 28)
- Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, Martyr, 1170 (Dec. 29)
- December 30
- John Wyclif, Priest and Translator of the Bible into English, 1394 (Dec. 31)
- The Circumcision and Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ (Jan. 1)
- Vedanayagam Samuel Azariah, Bishop in South India, Evangelist, 1945 (Jan. 2)
- January 3
- January 4
- Epiphany Eve (Jan. 5)
(Make sure to check out our Rookie Anglican Guide to Epiphany!)
A full twelve days of celebration, certain days within the season commemorate key events in the narrative of the Incarnation of Christ, such as:
- Childermas (or the Holy Innocents, Dec. 28), which recalls those infants murdered by Herod as he sought to kill Christ and
- the Feast of the Circumcision (or the Holy Name of Our Lord, Jan. 1), when Mary and Joseph presented Christ in the temple for naming, and ends on Epiphany Eve (Jan. 5).
Different traditions may celebrate additional feasts or remembrances within this season as well.
Here’s an overview of the 12 Days of Christmas
On Christmas morning, the party has just gotten started! But many people wonder what happens on the rest of the 12 days? Well, not every day in Christmastide has a major feast associated with it. But we will cover the ones that do below. Note that in some years, some feasts are “transferred.” This means that if they fall on a Sunday, they are moved to a Monday.
The liturgical day actually starts at sundown the night before a feast or fast. The Christmas Eve Eucharist is actually the first worship service of Christmas. The emphasis is usually on the story of the birth of Christ. The church is greened (and redded) in preparation. Because we don’t sing carols during Advent, we sing and sing on Christmas Eve. Some churches have candlelight services, although this is properly reserved for The Epiphany, if possible.
The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Day
Christmas Day is the day of the “Christ Mass.” It is a festival day, a day of rejoicing that God has been made man in the person of a tiny baby, born of the virgin Mary. Gift giving on Christmas day is a tradition that can remind us, and help us to put into action, the great gift that God gave the world that day in Bethlehem.
December 26th: The Feast of St. Stephen
You can read about St. Stephen in Acts, chapters 6 and 7. He is considered to be a proto-deacon of the church, with others, because he was set apart to minister to the needs of the widows on behalf of the apostles. He was martyred by stoning, and Saul (later Paul) stood by and held his murderer’s cloaks. Stephen preached the Gospel as he was being stoned, and saw a vision of Jesus standing at God’s right hand.
December 27th: The Feast of St. John
St. John was the “beloved disciple.” He was basically Jesus’ best friend. He wrote the Gospel of John, which focused on the theology of the incarnation and the person of Jesus Christ. John focused on the light of Christ coming into a dark world. This focus is appropriate during the Christmas season, as a reminder that God is light, and that in Jesus we see the world as it is, and also catch a glimpse of how he is redeeming it.
The First Sunday After Christmas
The first Sunday after Christmas is focused more on the theology of the Incarnation and the dual nature of Christ. John 1 is read. This reading helps us to see that the Incarnation and dual natures of Christ are not dry theology. They are the very light of God poured into our lives. The Word was made flesh, and it changed the world. There is no other God like our God, who came to live among us. There is no other story like this Story, and it has radically transformed our world.
December 28th: The Holy Innocents
This is a more reflective, somber day. This day commemorates the innocent children who were killed by Herod in Bethlehem when he was trying to eliminate the baby that was said to be the Messiah (Matthew 2). Along with these innocent babies, we remember all innocent people who have been subject to violence or even death. We pray that God will frustrate the designs of tyrants, and give us grace to bring healing to a world marked by suffering.
January 1: The Holy Name (New Year’s Day)
This might rock your world a bit. January 1st is actually not the first day of the Church Year. In our calendar, this is the day that Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day according to the custom of the Jews (Luke 2). This was when the child was given a name. The name “Jesus” is the Greek form of the Hebrew “Joshua” which means “the Lord will save.” The angel that appeared to both Mary and Joseph told them to “call his name Jesus” for he will “save his people from their sins.”
The name of God is an important and holy aspect of the Hebrew faith. God’s name was revealed to Moses as the “I AM” and “Yahweh.” To this day, Jews do not pronounce or write the name of God, to set it apart. Because of the power of God to save in Jesus Christ, we celebrate his name on this day. Meanwhile, we are enjoying the public holiday of New Year’s Day as well.
The Second Sunday after Christmas
When there is a Second Sunday after Christmas (which is almost always), we focus on the humanity of Christ. He came into this world and walked in our shoes. He experienced life just as we do, but without sin. He was poor and lowly, and he came to serve. He loved us, even to death. Our God became one of us.
January 6th: The Epiphany
The Epiphany follows the Twelve Days. It is the feast that commemorates the coming of the Wise Men to Jesus, following the star. These magi were Gentiles, non-Jews. No one knows for sure why they were looking for a Jewish Messiah. But they were guided to him by the light of a star.
The Epiphany completes the cycle of Christ’s birth story, but it also points us out from that moment to the world. Just as the Magi, gentiles, came to see Jesus and followed his light, so all people can be drawn to him. The light of Christ still shines today through us. We are not called to put it under a basket and hide it or try to keep it for ourselves. We are called to shine his light to all the world.
The Feast of the Epiphany both closes Christmastide and opens the Season after the Epiphany (AKA “Epiphanytide”). This is called “ordinary” time. It’s not “ordinary” in the sense of “unimportant.” Instead, it shows us that our ordinary lives are indeed filled with the light and love of God, and are the place where he works.
(To learn more about Epiphany and Epiphanytide, read our Rookie Anglican Guide to Epiphany!)
How did Christmastide Begin?
As early as 567 A.D., the church began formally setting aside the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany as both a sacred and festive season with Advent a special time of fasting in preparation for the feast.
The observation of a prolonged festive Christmas celebration continued through the middle ages and the early modern era, but, at least in America, the real Christmastide has all but faded away in a blur of post-Christmas shopping, gift returning, and diet/exercise resolution planning.
How do we celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas?
First, celebrate! As Ashley Wallace says in A Thrill of Hope: Celebrating Advent at Home, “In the world in which we live, we are given no time to prepare for the birth of Our Lord and Savior and then no time to celebrate it once we get there.”
So, having prepared, let’s rejoice! Take time to enjoy the delights of the season.
- You may have to clock back into work on the 26th, but you can leave the Christmas decorations up for the season at home (or on your desk).
- Before you start planning to cut calories (or carbs or fat) for the New Year, enjoy the Christmas cookies your aunt made for you!
- Many cultures have treats unique to Christmastide, and this is a perfect time to explore those traditions.
- Continue giving gifts or doing acts of kindness and service for others; generosity doesn’t have to end at 11:59 pm December 25th.
- Additionally, many churches will include special services during Christmastide. This is a great opportunity to participate in the “story services” of the liturgical calendar. Personally, I’m looking forward to attending our first Epiphany service this year!
In short, take time to savor the season after all of the holiday-related busyness. Throw open the doors of hospitality to welcome in Our Savior and the stranger.
How can we restore the REAL 12 Days of Christmas? “The 12 Days Christmastide Conspiracy”
Almost everyone seems to feel the letdown after Christmas Day. After six weeks of singing Christmas carols, shopping, and partying, it all comes to a grinding halt at 8:30am on Christmas morning.
Another year till next Christmas.
And as much as people complain about commercialization and hectic holidays, etc, we still keep on doing the same things and expecting different results.
A new movement called the Advent Conspiracy aims to help us all slow down, spend less, and focus on family time. It’s a bit confusing, because they seem to be conflating Advent with Christmas, but nonetheless its refreshing to hear a part of our culture celebrating more but with less consumer addiction.
This all got me thinking that we should start a 12 Days of Christmas Christmastide Conspiracy. A conspiracy like this would emphasize the preparation period of Advent, and then the full twelve-day celebration of Christmas.
(To learn more about Advent, click here.)
What could we gain from such a conspiracy?
First, it keeps us sane during the weeks leading up to Christmas Eve, as we reflect and pray, a more subdued tone.
This alone can help us focus less on spending money and doing a bigger and better lights display and more on the coming of Christ (1st and 2nd).
Second, it helps us focus more on a season and less on one particular day, or moment of one day.
This spreads out the joy, so that we don’t feel like Christmas is over after Christmas Day. We get to keep on celebrating for twelve days, and then cap it off as we celebrate Epiphany on January 6th, the day of transition out of Christmas and into “ordinary” time, a more gentle transition than the startling end of Christmas morning.
Third, it provides more time to absorb Christmas, and reflect on Christmas together.
During the 12 days of Christmas, we can read the Christmas story, and reflect on the various feast days (St Stephen, for instance, on December 26th). This period follows the “rush” of Christmas, so its a great time to relax together and actually think about the beautiful and unique Christian story of Incarnation.
I was thinking we should start this new conspiracy…and then I remembered that it started centuries ago. It’s called the Church Year, and most world Christians have and still are observing this pattern.
(To learn more about the Church Year, click here.)
What made millions of Christians decide to chuck both Advent and the 12 Days of Christmas?
I suspect that at some point we scraped the icing off the cake, trying to get to the good part first. And then we felt too sick to our stomachs to eat the actual cake. The remedy is to save that cake until birthday time, and then cut off a little slice each day, enjoying each bite.
Let’s restore Christmastide!
So the rallying cry has been sounded, and here are the marching orders for the 12 Days of Christmas:
- Do NOT, under any circumstances, sing any Christmas Carols until Christmas Eve. (Okay, sure, at the office Christmas party or something, okay, but not when you have a choice.)
- During Advent (starts the fourth Sunday before Christmas), focus on the promises of the coming Messiah, on “preparing the way of the Lord” through repentance, reflection, and anticipation. Learn to wait. Put an Advent wreath on the table, lighting one purple candle each week (pink is on the third Sunday) and then the white Christmas candle on Christmas Eve.
- On Christmas Eve, put up the tree, put out the presents, and shout and sing for joy! On Christmas Day, sing, eat, give, and enjoy family time.
- Give the kids and each other a small, homemade gift or an active craft or game each day of the 12 days. Have a time of Scripture reading and prayer, and talk about the Christmas Story and its meaning.
- On January 6th, light candles, read about the Wise Men who came from the east, and sing Christmas Carols. Closeout the season by removing the Christmas tree, and it’s fun to have a bonfire using the tree if you can.
At my house, we have never been able to wait until Christmas Eve to put up the tree. So I’m right there with all of you who are groaning right now.
But I’m ready for a 12 Days of Christmas ancient/future conspiracy to get us all out of the Christmas funk—and restore Christmas to its high place as a feast worthy of a month of preparation and twelve days of celebration.
Collects for Christmastide and the 12 Days of Christmas
Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born [this day] of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
The Collect for Christmas Day and any of the sets of proper lessons for Christmas Day serve for any weekdays between Holy Innocents’ Day and the First Sunday of Christmas
When Christmas Day falls on a Sunday, the next Sunday is the Second Sunday of Christmas or The Circumcision and Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Saint Stephen (Dec. 26)
O Glorious Lord, your servant Stephen looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors: Grant that in all our sufferings here upon earth we may love and forgive our enemies, looking steadfastly to Jesus Christ our Lord, who sits at your right hand and intercedes for us; and who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Saint John the Evangelist (Dec. 27)
Shed upon your Church, O Lord, the brightness of your light; that we, being illumined by the teaching of your apostle and evangelist John, may so walk in the light of your truth, that at length we may attain to the fullness of eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The Holy Innocents (Dec. 28)
Almighty God, out of the mouths of children you manifest your truth, and by the death of the Holy Innocents at the hands of evil tyrants you show your strength in our weakness: We ask you to mortify all that is evil within us, and so strengthen us by your grace, that we may glorify your holy Name by the innocence of our lives and the constancy of our faith even unto death; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who died for us and now lives with you and the Holy Spirit, world without end. Amen.
The First Sunday of Christmas
Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, kindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The Circumcision and Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ (Jan. 1)
Almighty God, your blessed Son fulfilled the covenant of circumcision for our sake, and was given the Name that is above every name: Give us grace faithfully to bear his Name, and to worship him with pure hearts according to the New Covenant; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The Second Sunday of Christmas
O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Other Christmastide Resources
- Celebrating The 12 Days of Christmas: A Guide for Churches and Families, by Chris Marchand
- A Thrill of Hope: Celebrating Advent at Home, by Ashley Wallace
- Twelve Tide: Celebrating a longer, less stressful, and more meaningful Christmas season. Learn more at 12tide.com!
- Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006
- “Christmastide” (Wikipedia)
- “Twelve Days of Christmas” (Wikipedia)
Special thanks to Greg Goebel, whose two older pieces, “What are the Twelve Days of Christmas?” and “Restoring the Twelve Days of Christmas” have been incorporated into this guide. The remainder of this Christmastide guide was put together by Tai French and Joshua Steele.