The “Twelve Days of Christmas” are not a count-down to Christmas, as often supposed, but a “count-up” from Christmas to the Epiphany, January 6. Except where the Epiphany is a civil holiday (as it is even in many very secularized countries) or a holy day of obligation (which it is not in the USA), it is usually transferred to the first Sunday in January. That means only about once every six years (accommodating for leap years) does January 6 fall on Sunday, and we actually celebrate Epiphany on the sixth. That happens this year.
I knew better than to believe the twelve days led up to Christmas, but I had always assumed the “First Day of Christmas” was Christmas Day, with the Twelfth Day being the Epiphany, January 6. When I counted it up on a calendar, however, January 6 turned out to be the 13th day.
To find out what’s happening here, I turned of course to Google, (aka Goliath) and discovered this: since in many ancient traditions, the day begins at sunset (rather than sunrise or midnight), it’s logical to see the first full day after Christmas as the First Day. (I guess that makes the 25th the “Zeroth Day of Christmas! Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was originally intended to be “fun” play to be performed on the Epiphany, the last night of the Christmas season, although it’s actual first performance didn’t take place until Candlemas Day, February 2, 1602.)
For me, the Twelve Days of Christmas is a good excuse for getting my Christmas cards out late.
I have always found the “Twelve Day of Christmas” Carol hovers between amusing and annoying. It has obscure origins and – sorry, “True Believers” – it was never a coded catechism in times of persecution. PNC Financial Services Group publishes an annual Christmas Price Index, and this year the total cost of the gifts would be $39,094.93. The seven swimming swans together are the most expensive, setting “Mr. True Love” back $13,125.00. (The “True Love” has to be a guy. Awomen would never be such an idiot.)
The best renditions of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” have to be spoofs, otherwise the audience falls asleep. I kind of like this oldie by the group, Straight No Chaser. It’s been described as a musical panic attack.
Now that we are super-saturated with Christmas carols, I’d like to point out that today, the “First Day,” has its own song, ostensibly about a virtuous tenth-century Duke of Bohemia, who, traipsing through the snow, followed in the footsteps of Christ and, through the courtesy of his evil brother, shared the crown of martyrdom with today’s Proto-Martyr. You’re familiar with the song, I’m sure.
I’m sure the “First Day” gift wasn’t intended to be merely decorative. Is anybody celebrating today with roast partridge and a pear salad? The partridge is in the same family as the smaller quail and the larger pheasant. I’ve never eaten partridge, have you? When I was studying in Rome in the mid 1970s, quail (quaglie) was a very popular secondo piatto. The tiny size of the bird made for a high ratio of both crisp skin (delicious) and tiny bones from which extracting the meat was arduous. I recall it tasted like chicken, but a lot more work.
I may have eaten pheasant when I was very young. There’s a photo (“darling”, some people say) of me on a family trip to South Dakota with a shotgun and a dead pheasant. I don’t think I pulled trigger, probably not yet possessing the discretion even to have “aided and abetted” in the killing. In fact, I have no memory of the event. I think a (now long deceased) uncle of mine, an avid hunter, was the culprit, and he then planted the evidence in my innocent hands. You can guess the menu for the next day’s dinner.
I have always seen today’s feast, St. Stephen the First Martyr, as a sobering reminder of the real implications of the Incarnation that we celebrate on Christmas. As I frequently note in homilies, the cross hovers over the crib, and “Jesus our Savior did come for to die.” Pope Francis invites us to pray to St. Stephen for the gift of “coherence” of our Christian faith and the way we live our lives. In today’s Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours, St. Fulgentius of Ruspe focuses on love as the only weapon of the true soldier. “And so the love that brought Christ from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth to heaven; shown first in the king, it later shone forth in his soldier. Love was Stephen’s weapon by which he gained every battle, and so won the crown signified by his name.” Find out more about St. Stephen the First Martyr whom we so fittingly celebrate today.
Oh, and Happy Boxing Day, too.