Twelvetide (or, The 12 Days of Christmas)

Centuries ago the observance and celebration of Christ’s birth spanned the period from December 25 to January 6, a twelve-day period called “Twelvetide,” much like the period from Lent to Easter is often referred to as “Eastertide.”

In Great Britain, the civic holidays end on Twelfth Night, the traditional English name given to the holy day celebrated on January 5. During the time of Queen Elizabeth, Twelfth Night was observed in England with wild celebration, a centuries-old tradition that inspired Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night. (Ah, the things you learn from the encyclopedia.)

On the church calendar, Twelvetide is a slow walk towards Epiphany and ends with the feast marking the appearance of the Magi at the site of the Christ Child. Many orthodox and traditional churches live out this practice of acknowledging the Twelve Days of “in-between.” To me, it is a new revelation and I welcome the slowing down it’s allowing me.

However, as our culture often does, veering away from the sacred and turning towards the fun, these twelve days are marked predominantly by a popular rhyme and song more than anything else. The song is sung during the Christmas season, ironically, not during the twelve days it represents. (There’s a link to a cool poster of the song on the website here, by the way.)


Maybe you think stretching out the days between Christmas and Epiphany is more like stretching out the stress. It’s the day after Christmas, and you are done with celebrating, done with gifting, and you’re ready to move on to the year ahead. The youngsters you know—nieces, nephews, neighbor kids or your own children—have gone back to their old favorite books, puzzles and games, and the high point from all that happiness of new presents has dimmed a bit.

So consider the built-in wisdom afforded by Twelvetide—a centuries-old practice desperately needed today when we want to over-accelerate our lives. Grown-ups and children alike can all use some help readjusting to the new normal of a coming year that isn’t packed with busy-ness, parties and presents.

We can’t keep Christmas with us all year, but maybe a gradual return to normalcy could help alleviate the sudden crash. A slow journey through the Twelve Days can allow the time to process our feelings about the presence of our family and friends–not just the presents. Decluttering and un-Christmasing during the twelve days of Christmas also combines handwork with heartwork–there’s something about physical movement that provides needed ‘think time.’ The truth is, there is often just as many challenges during the holiday as there is Christmas cheer.

So, on this, the seventh (or eighth, depending on how you count) day of Christmas, take an extra moment to breathe. Give yourself permission to un-Christmas slowly and walk into the new year with hope. Epiphany is waiting—the Feast Day on the Church Calendar marking the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles.

When the Magi came and saw the King in the manger, they left to tell the world that the savior Jesus was finally here. Epiphany is the sending point of Christmas, not the ending.

Christmas wasn’t really over—it had just begun. And by God’s grace we are given the chance to begin anew each day.

What are you beginning today?


This post is adapted from Chapter 7 of my book “Living the Season Well-Reclaiming Christmas.” 

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