The Twelve Days of Christmas
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 Turtle Doves, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.
- An English Christmas song
When I was growing up, every year my parents held a legendary Twelfth Night party. After some years, they started sharing the hosting of their gala event with the neighbors behind us (who later became my in-laws), and the annual affair became a progressive party. Cold cuts, substantial hors d’oeuvres and canapés (designed to help absorb and temper the effects of alcohol), and desserts were served at our house first – along with some libations, of course.
Guests filled our living and dining rooms. Our family room had a nice stereo, a small grand piano, and enough space for a few people to dance. My sister and I stayed upstairs and enjoyed the sounds of music floating up to us. After a few hours, the entire entourage moved on (without us) to the second house, which had a large sunken living room with a great sound system and its own baby grand piano – that’s where the dancing and celebration went into the wee hours – one last hurrah before the winter blahs set in.
At our house, preparation for this event had two fronts. The first was the acknowledgement of Epiphany as the end of the Christmas season. This is when our tree and holiday decorations came down, and we sang The Twelve Days of Christmas for a final time, driving my grandmother a little crazy. Then, after the ornaments, trains, and Moravian star were safely packed away, we moved into full party mode – polishing silver, de-veining shrimp, arranging snack trays, and preparing the hard sauce for the plum pudding – which was arrayed on the buffet table with the last of the Christmas cookies and shortbread.
Downton Abbey’s Mrs. Patmore had nothing on my grandmother on those days. All four-foot-nine of her huffed through the kitchen, preparing unbeatable goodies. Mom prepared her own specialties and oversaw the layout of furniture and décor (breakables moved) for optimum circulation of guests, while Dad moved chairs and made sure the driveway was clear and parking would go smoothly.
So why throw a party on January 6th (or as close as they could get with a Saturday)? Well, because today is variously known as the Feast of the Epiphany, Three Kings Day, and “Twelfth Night.” It is the final opportunity to burn the yule log, exchange gifts, and celebrate the season.
Historically, in the Christian faith, the day celebrates the visitation of the Magi, and their recognition, and revelation, of the Christ child. This was a huge Eureka moment for the gentile world. So centuries ago, just as the officials of the Roman Catholic church institutionalized December 25th as Christmas Day, they chose twelve days later to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. Truth be told, Christ was probably born in the Spring, and it likely took the Magi many months to catch up with him, but there you have it. We happily sing The Twelve Days of Christmas (which had a deeper meaning), and Christian denominations still remember and celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany in January, though with a great deal less fanfare than we celebrate Christmas Day.
The Church, of course, had other reasons for the dates selected. But the fact is that the actual dates are unimportant. It is the events we celebrate: the gift of Christ to the world, and his recognition by gentile wise men of his time. Epiphany is a day of discovery and revelation.
So as we celebrate Twelfth Night, what was your Epiphany this year? What new discovery or revelation did the past year bring to you? And how will you celebrate and use that new understanding as you venture into 2014 and beyond?
On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me….
Enjoy this whimsical reimagining of the song by Straight no Chaser!
For some additional information on Epiphany and its celebrations, see: