On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me.
"The Twelve Days of Christmas" is as much a holiday music staple as "Jingle Bells," but many people sing it without knowing what the 12 days of Christmas are really all about.
The Rev. Denise Arpino, pastor of Simpson-Temple United Parish, said the 12 days of Christmas do not, as many believe, constitute the 12 days before Christmas, but rather Dec. 25 and the days after it through Epiphany.
(Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski)
Jan Moist helps her daughter, Alice, light the Advent candle while her son, John, watches in their Altoona home. The Moists attend services at St. George Orthodox Church and although lighting the Advent wreath is a Western church tradition, Jan Moist continues the custom she learned in her previous faith. For many Christians, Christmas Day is only the beginning of an observance which lasts until Jan. 6.
"For us [as Lutherans], Christmas is a season that begins with the birth of Christ through the celebration of Epiphany," she said. "We forget that Christmas is a season that doesn't end on the 25th but continues to the 6th of January. The key is to not let go of Christmas after the 25th. I would love to hear Christmas music from Dec. 26 to Jan. 6."
Arpino said the days prior to Dec. 25th are days of preparation. "According to the church calendar, this isn't the Christmas season, but Advent," she said.
The Lutheran Church has an Advent wreath with additional candles lit weekly.
On Nov. 27, Simpson-Temple United Parish had a special service with Advent readings and songs. The purpose, Arpino said, was "to remind people in a big way that this is the time of preparation and preparing our hearts."
In the Western tradition, the 12 days of Christmas signify a period of celebration between the Feast of the Nativity of Christ and the Feast of the Epiphany, the visit by the magi, on Jan. 6. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, it's the Theophany, the baptism of Christ. Father Stephen Lourie, pastor of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church, said the Trinity is manifested at Christ's baptism because the voice of the Father is heard and the Holy Spirit descends on Christ like a dove.
Both traditions prepare for the coming of Christ on Christmas. The Eastern Orthodox begin a fast Nov. 15. Believers abstain from dairy and meat, but can eat fish on weekends and put the fast on hold Thanksgiving Day.
In the Western tradition, candles on an Advent wreath on lit weekly, and it is a time of prayer and penance. Lourie said some Orthodox believers have adopted traditions such as the Advent wreath and calender in preparation for Christmas.
Lourie referred to the 12 days of Christmas as 12 days of celebration between Christmas and Epiphany. He said the rush to start Christmas early and end it abruptly on Dec. 25 makes people weary of the season.
"That's why people are so burned out by Christmas time," he said. "They don't want to hear Christmas carols, they've been hearing them since Thanksgiving."
The Rev. Monsignor Robert Mazur, rector of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, said in Roman Catholicism, four weeks of Advent are observed.
"Christmas does not begin until Christmas Eve," he said.
Mazur said that it isn't until late afternoon on Dec. 24 that people of the Catholic faith launch fully into Christmas.
"Then we enter full force into the Christmas season for two weeks," he said.
Mazur said several observances occur during the 12 days of Christmas, including the Feast of Stephen on Dec. 26, the Feast of the Holy Family on Dec. 30, the Feast of Mary, Mother of God, on Jan. 1, and the Great Feast of the Epiphany, the oldest Christmas feast, on Jan. 8.
Mazur said some dates vary according to the calendar. While there are Masses and special prayers held during the 12 days, Mazur said individuals might choose to acknowledge the period in their own homes in various ways.
As for the famous "Twelve Days of Christmas" song, the speculation that it represents Christian symbolism and secret religious codes is conjecture, said the Rev. Gregory Roeber, professor of history and religious studies at Penn State University.
The theory is that each gift is symbolic of a gift of the Christian faith. For instance, the partridge is suppose to represent the baby Jesus, the five golden rings, the first five books of the Old Testament and the 12 drummers drumming, the 12 points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed.
Roeber, also a deacon at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church, said many historians' best guess is that the song originated in France, and then got transferred to England, although the time period is uncertain.
As for the theory that the song is a mnemonic means of teaching children the catechism during a period from 1558 to the early 1800s when Catholics could not practice their faith openly in England, Roeber said there is no proof of that. "It might have been a part of the general atmosphere of festivity," he said. "Most people think it's a memory song. There's really no historic evidence that the things referred to on the days are tied to Christian stuff."