Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. Thomas Merton

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Twelve Days of Christmas

The Liturgical Year

For more information go to Click on "Liturgy of the Word."

There are many other good sites for more information on the Christian liturgical year, including St. Mary of the Visitation Catholic Church at, Wikipedia at, and many others.

As a child, I remember my mother rushing to get the Christmas tree and all the decorations down before New Year's Day. She said it was bad luck to leave the tree up after New Year's and that Christmas was over. She was also very annoyed with her brother's family's habit of not putting up their Christmas tree until Christmas Eve and then not opening all their gifts until the week after New Year's Day. Oh, they'd open a few packages, but most of them were saved until after New Year's. Their son had gotten the idea that since our family was predominantly of German descent, they should follow the more traditional German practice of decorating the tree on Christmas Eve and then follow the twelve days of Christmas of the liturgical church year, opening most of their gifts on the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, the day designated as the arrival of the Magi to the manger in Bethlehem to present their gifts to the Christ Child. Their habit of not opening all their gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day was greatly annoying to my mother whose secret Christmas habit was to sneak into the living room late at night after my father had left for work, open gifts that were that were of particular interest to her, then carefully wrap them back up. She would open not only gifts tagged for her, but those for anyone else she was curious about. I must have been about six or seven when I caught her doing this. She swore me to secrecy by some ominous threat that I have long since forgotten, but which must have carried lifelong repercussions because I knew she meant business and I'd better not tell anyone what she was doing.

At some point over the years, the words to "The Twelve Days of Christmas" began to make me curious as to what, exactly, were the Twelve Days of Christmas. I, like most of the people around me, especially my superstitious mother in her rush to get things put away before New Year's, had the general idea that the twelve days of Christmas were the twelve days before Christmas instead of the twelve days after Christmas. I hardly remember hearing the term Advent used for the period of time before Christmas in my own non-Catholic church or those of my friends at which I was a frequent visitor. Having been given a set of encyclopedias when I was eight, I eventually decided to look for an answer. I guess I must have been about ten at the time. When I found out the significance of the twelve days and their relation to the church year, things made more sense. In my child's understanding it was simply the matter that Jesus is born on Day One of Christmas and then the Three Wise Men, after their long trek, finally show up on Day Twelve bearing gifts.

For years afterward, there was usually some degree of argument in our family as to what constituted those twelve days as my mother continued to complain about that silly notion her brother's family had about not decorating their tree until Christmas Eve, not opening gifts until after New Year's, and not taking that tree down on New Year's Day. I can remember that during the Christmas season, every time we'd pass St. Patrick's Church (the only Catholic church in the county) my mother would make somewhat exasperated remarks about how those Catholics sure did leave their Christmas decorations up a long time. After I eventually became Catholic and became familiar with the various seasons of the Church year, I tried my best to get her to think of the twelve days of Christmas as the twelve days following Christmas Day, but to no avail. I finally just gave up and let her have her way. But...there was that one year when, for whatever reason, she left the Christmas tree up until well into February!

Guess I should include something about the song.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

On the first day of Christmas,
My true love sent to me
A partridge in a pear tree.

On the second day of Christmas,
My true love sent to me
Two turtledoves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

We'll skip ahead to Day 12:

On the twelfth day of Christmas,
My true love sent to me
Twelve drummers drumming,
Eleven pipers piping,
Ten lords a-leaping,
Nine ladies dancing,
Eight maids a-milking,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtledoves,
And a partridge in a pear tree!

(Oops! I forgot to write down the source for the lyrics! Probably Wikipedia.)

And now, borrowing the words of Clement Clark Moore (A Visit from St. Nicholas aka The Night Before Christmas):

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.

(Christmas tree, Wise Men, partridge and St. Nick graphics from )


  1. I wont tell anyone about what your mother did. I woul've done the same thing. Lovely post. I like how informative you on on your topics. It is a great read. Thank you for your words.

  2. Thank you so much, Daisy mum. I meant to say that the other day with your last comment. I really wish I had time to keep up the blog and write on a more regular basis. It takes up more of my time than I originally thought it would, but I enjoy doing it. Needless to say, I enjoy yours, too, but don't get to visit as often as I'd like. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  3. I have to confess I had to smile when reading about your mother sneaking about opening presents!! We can get very attached to our own traditions, how we do Christmas, for whatever reason.

    I hope your Christmas was wonderful - and that 2009 is a great year for you :)

  4. Yes, thinking about her peeking makes me laugh, too, and silly though it is, it's one of my favorite Christmas memories.