Christmas is not just one day, but twelve– from Jesus’ birth, dated as December 25, all the way to January 6, when tradition marks the arrival of the wise ones, dreamers really.
I always thought the twelve days were some holdover from the ancient middle eastern custom of weeks-long festivals (think of Jewish holidays like Hanukkah or Passover). But it turns out that “Christmastide” is mostly about discrepancies of calendars and ritual practices. Christendom could never really agree on the celebration of Christmas (or anything else!), so we ended up admitting a string of days, elements, celebrations. I like that: difference of opinion embraced with inclusivity translates to greater richness and depth, and more holidays!
The eponymous hymn commemorating the Twelve Days of Christmas is, likewise, surrounded by questions. Some say it’s just a sing-song children’s rhyme. My favorite theory that it is a catechism developed in England during the era when it was illegal to be Roman Catholic, 1589 to 1829.
Each day’s gifts represent an aspect of Christian faith– in secret code– and the “me” to whom they are given represents the faithful (Catholic) Christian. The true love is God. And the partridge, in the pear tree is Christ– depicted as a mother hen feigning an injury to decoy predatory danger away from her nest and her helpless chicks.
A catechism is a sort of religious user’s manual for teaching children and other “initiates” the basic tenets, doctrine and beliefs of the faith community. Since Old First and the United Church of Christ are a “non-creedal” community of faith– meaning we do not ask or insist or pretend that we all understand God the same way– “right answers” aren’t so easy for us to come by… or even what we are aiming for. In our tradition, nonetheless, a catechism might serve as a sort of spiritual check-in: prompting, focusing our living of the questions, such as “where am I in my faith right now?” or “where could I grow spiritually
With the holiday crush falling behind us, I offer you the “rest”– double entendre intended– of the 12 gifts (which are already yours by faith) as a possible practice for deepening your journey through these days of Christmas:
December 25, Christmas Day: A Partridge in a pear tree is Christ. Spend some time– say ten or twelve minutes– prayerfully considering “What’s it mean to me that Christ– this most vulnerable child born in a manger– offers me protection?”
December 26: The 2 Turtle Doves are the Old and New Testaments. Think of a favorite passage or story in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, and read them. Ask yourself, “Why do these verses speak to me?” Again, set aside a little time, not more than about 10 to 12 minutes, preferable early in the day…
December 27: The 3 French Hens are the faith, hope and love from 1 Corinthians 13:13. Spend your time today meditating on “What do faith, hope and love look like in my life and in our modern world?”
December 28: The 4 Calling Birds are the four Gospels. Try reading one all the way through. Ok, today is your long homework day! Mark, the shortest, should take about an hour and a quarter. Interestingly, if we read Scripture for 12 and 1/2 minutes a day, we could read the whole Bible in one year…
December 29: The 5 Golden Rings are the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the Torah or the Pentateuch. Deuteronomy 4 is a summary of the whole. Sort of foreign sounding, huh? Still, pray over that passage, asking God, “How could a challenge like this change the way I live?”
December 30: The 6 Geese a-laying are the six days of creation. In your prayers today, can you give thanks for at least one creative thing you have done for each of the last 6 days?
December 31: The 7 Swans a-swimming are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Sounding a little Catholic, these comes from Isaiah 11: 2-3 (through Thomas Aquinas!): wisdom, understanding, right judgement, courage, knowledge, reverence, wonder. Ask yourself, “Which of these spiritual aptitudes are my strong suits, and which might I work on, strengthen and develop in the year coming?”
Jan. 1: The 8 Maids a-milking are the eight beatitudes, Matthew 5: 3-10. “What would it look like for me to be blessed AND a blessing according to these beatitudes? Would I have to live my life differently in order for that to happen?”
January 2: The 9 Ladies Dancing are the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit. Actually, Galatians 5:22-23 says there is one fruit of the Spirit that has nine attributes! “How does my life show forth these evidences of God at work in and through me?” Will the fruit of the Spirit be evident as you attend church today?
Jan. 3: The 10 Lords a-leaping are the ten commandments, Exodus 20:2-17. “Which ones do I struggle with most?”
Jan: 4: The 11 Pipers Piping are the eleven faithful apostles (discounting Judas Iscariot, his replacement, Mattias, and Paul who was also called later). “How has God called me as an apostle? To whom and with what mission have I been sent out? What is distinctive about the work God is waiting on me to do?”
Jan. 5: The 12 Drummers drumming are the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed. Ok, for non-creedal Christians, this can’t be a test! Maybe, just talk with God about: “Which, if any, of these are the bedrock of my faith, and which, well, aren’t so central or important. And, perhaps more significantly, WHY?”
Beloved, relax: it’s ok: God already knows. And if we really listen, and share honestly, deeply, there are important conversations to be had. Getting closer to honesty about what we truly believe is surely a step in our spiritual growth:
1. I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
2. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
3. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
4. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell.
5. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, & is seated at the right hand of the Father.
6. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
7. I believe in the Holy Spirit,
8. the holy, catholic Church,
9. the communion of saints,
10. the forgiveness of sins,
11. the resurrection of the body,
12. and life everlasting.
Jan. 6, Epiphany: The “dreamers” brought gold, frankincense and myrrh. “What are the gifts I can bring to Christ in the living out of my faith?”
Howard Thurman, one of North America’s few mystics, has written:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the king and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.
Christmas isn’t just the prelude to all that good work; it’s our resource for making it possible. None of us can do it all; we don’t have to. Instead, each of us is asked to do her or his part. What a blessed opportunity we have been given to walk this journey and to work this ministry together.