The Twelve Days of Christmas are the days from Christmas until the beginning of Epiphany (January 6th; the 12 days count from December 25th until January 6th). On the updated calendar — since Ephiphany is celebrated on a Sunday — these days may be more or less. We have 20 days on the tree this year because the Christmas season extends until the feast of the Baptism of Christ and we have decided to include them all.
The origin of the Twelve Days is complicated, and is related to differences in calendars, church traditions, and ways to observe this holy day in various cultures. In the Western church, Epiphany is traditionally celebrated as the time the three Wise Men or Magi arrived to present gifts to the young Jesus. In some cultures Epiphany is observed as Three Kings Day, or simply the Day of the Kings. Even though December 25th is celebrated as Christmas in these cultures, Epiphany is often the day for giving gifts. In some places it is traditional to give Christmas gifts for each of the Twelve Days of Christmas.
The purest of Virgins gave us our God, who was this day born of her, clothed in the flesh of a Babe, and she was found worthy to feed him at her Breast: let us all adore Christ, who came to save us.
Ye faithful people, let us all rejoice, for our Savior is born in our world: this Day there has been born the Son of the great Mother, and she yet a pure Virgin.
O Queen of the world, and Daughter of a kingly race! Christ has risen from thy womb, as a Bridegroom coming from the bride-chamber: He that rules the stars lies in a Crib. — Antiphon from the ancient Church of Gaul
December 26, Feast of St. Stephen
Saint Stephen is the first martyr of the Church, and is the patron of stonemasons, masons, bricklayers, deacons, headaches, and horses. His story comes from the Acts of the Apostles. He is usually pictured in deacon's vestments, holding the symbol of martyrdom, a palm branch. Sometimes he has a stone in his left hand, to indicate his death by stoning. He is depicted in many images wearing a wreath, which refers to the origin of his name, the Greek word Stephanos meaning "wreath."
"If you know what witness means, you understand why God brings St. Stephen, St. John, and the Holy Innocents to the crib in the cave as soon as Christ is born liturgically. To be a witness is to be a martyr. Holy Mother Church wishes us to realize that we were born in baptism to become Christ — He who was the world's outstanding Martyr." — Love Does Such Things, by Rev. M. Raymond, O.C.S.O.
December 27, Feast of Saint John
St. John was born in Bethsaida, and like his brother James, was a fisherman. He was called while mending his nets to follow Jesus. He became the beloved disciple of Jesus. He wrote the fourth Gospel, three Epistles and the Apocalypse. His passages on the pre-existence of the Word, who by His Incarnation became the light of the world and life of our souls, are among the finest of the New Testament.
He is the evangelist of the divinity of Christ and His fraternal love. With James, his brother and Simon Peter, he was one of the witnesses of the Transfiguration. At the Last Supper, he leans on the Master's breast. At the foot of the cross, Jesus entrusts His Mother to his care. John's pure life kept him very close to Jesus and Mary. In years to come John was exiled to the island of Patmos under Emperor Domitian, but lived to an old age. —From the Daily Roman Missal.
December 28, Feast of the Holy Innocents
The Holy Innocents saved the Child Jesus from death by King Herod by the shedding of their own blood. The Holy Innocents are the special patrons of small children, who can please the Christ Child by being obedient and helpful to parents, and by sharing their toys and loving their siblings and playmates.
The feast of the Holy Innocents is an excellent time for parents to inaugurate the custom of blessing their children. From the Ritual comes the form which we use on solemn occasions, such as First Communion. But parents can simply sign a cross on the child's forehead with the right thumb dipped in holy water and say: May God bless you, and may He be the Guardian of your heart and mind—the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
December 29, Fifth Day in the Octave of Christmas
Given the tempo of the liturgical season with its feasts it is easy to overlook that one saint who for many centuries was, after Mary and Joseph, the most venerated person in European Christendom.
St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury was assassinated in his cathedral on December 29, 1170 because of his opposition to his former friend, King Henry II of England, who was encroaching on the liberties of the English Church.
Devotion to him spread like wildfire. He was enshrined in the hearts of men, and in their arts. In statues and stained glass, in song and story this good bishop was everywhere to be found: France, Italy, Spain, Sweden. Many miracles were attributed to his heavenly advocacy. — Excerpted from Days of the Lord.
December 30, Feast of the Holy Family
Today is the feast day of the Holy Family, but also every family's feast day, since the Holy Family is the patron and model of all Christian families. Today should be a huge family feast, since it is devoted entirely to the Holy Family as a model for the Christian family life. As Rev. Edward Sutfin states:
"The children must learn to see in their father the foster-father St. Joseph, and the Blessed Mother as the perfect model for their own mother. The lesson to be learned is both practical and theoretical, in that the children must learn how to obey and to love their parents in thought, word and action, just as Christ was obedient to Mary and Joseph. Helping mother in the kitchen and in the house work, and helping father in his odd jobs about the home thus take on a new significance by being performed in a Christ-like spirit." (True Christmas Spirit, ©1955, St. Meinrad Archabbey, Inc.).
December 31, Seventh Day in the Octave of Christmas
The last day of the year is also the feast of St. Sylvester — bishop of Rome in 314. Constantine gave him the Lateran Palace, which became the cathedral church of Rome. Many legends exist about Sylvester. He supposedly cured Constantine from leprosy and later baptized him on his deathbed.
New Year's Eve, along with its innocent gaiety, is really a day for serious reflection. On the eve of the civil New Year the children may join their parents in a holy hour, in prayer and thanksgiving for the gifts and benefits which God has given them in the past year, and to pray for necessary graces in the forthcoming civil year.
January 1, Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
Although New Year's Day is not celebrated by the Church, this day has been observed as a holy day of obligation since early times due to the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Each family and country has different traditional foods to eat on New Year's Day, with lentils being the main superstition: ill luck befalling those who do not eat lentils at the beginning of the year.
New Year's is a day of traditional hospitality, visiting and good cheer, mostly with a secular view, but there is no reason that this day, too, could not be sanctified in Christ.
January 2, St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen
In celebrating the feasts of St. Basil of Caesarea and St. Gregory Nazianzen on the same day, the Church extols a virtue which she has always esteemed, friendship. The friendship between Basil and Gregory was admirable. Born in Cappadocia around 330, they studied together in Athens and then returned to their homeland where they led a monastic life for several years. Their temperaments were very different. While Basil had the qualities of a leader and a gift for organization that made him a legislator for monks in the East, Gregory was a contemplative and a poet.
The Orthodox Church has placed Basil and Gregory with John Chrysostom in the first rank of ecumenical doctors. They are "the three Hierarchs." — Excerpted from Magnificat, PO Box 91, Spencerville, MD © 2001
January 3, Most Holy Name of Jesus
The name of Jesus is a name of gladness, a name of hope and a name of love. A name of gladness, because if the remembrance of past transgressions afflicts us, this name comforts us, reminding us that the Son of God became man for this purpose, to make himself our Savior.
A name of hope, because he that prays to the Eternal Father in the name of Jesus may hope for every grace he asks for: If you ask the Father anything in My name, He will give it you.
A name of love. For the name of Jesus brings to our remembrance all the sufferings which Jesus has endured for us in his life and at his death. — Excerpted from St. Alphonsus de Liguori, The Incarnation Birth and Infancy of Jesus Christ
January 4, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton
Elizabeth Seton was born on August 28, 1774, of a wealthy and distinguished Episcopalian family. She was baptized in the Episcopal faith and was a faithful adherent of the Episcopal Church until her conversion to Catholicism.
She established her first Catholic school in Baltimore in 1808; in 1809, she established a religious community in Emmitsburg, Maryland. After seeing the expansion of her small community of teaching sisters to New York and as far as St. Loius, she died on January 4, 1821, and was declared a saint by Pope Paul VI on September 14, 1975. She is the first native born American to be canonized a saint.
January 5, St. John Neumann
John Neumann was born in Bohemia on March 20, 1811. Since he had a great desire to dedicate himself to the American missions, he came to the United States as a cleric and was ordained in New York in 1836 by Bishop Dubois.
In 1840, John Neumann entered the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists). He labored in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland. In 1852, he was consecrated bishop of Philadelphia. There he worked hard for the establishment of parish schools and for the erection of many parishes for the numerous immigrants. Bishop Neumann died on January 5, 1860; he was beatified in 1963.
January 6, Solemnity of the Epiphany
Epiphany is a large celebration, especially in Spanish speaking countries. Things look different around the household: the infant Jesus in the manger now has a small gold crown and is wearing regal robes. The figures of the wise men have reached Bethlehem, completing the nativity scene.
The Church extends itself on Epiphany to the homes of the faithful. The custom of blessing the home on this day probably originated from these words in the Gospel, "And entering into the house, they found the Child with Mary, His Mother, and falling down they adored Him." The priest blesses the house if he can be present, but if not, the father of the family may do so.
January 7, St. Raymond of Penafort
St. Raymond devoted much of his life to helping the poor. The famous incident which is recounted in the story of Raymond's life took place when he went with King James to Majorca. The King dismissed Raymond's request to return home. Relying on his faith and love of God, Raymond walked on the waves to his ship, spread his cloak to make a sail, made the sign of the cross then sailed to the distant harbor of Barcelona.
For St. Raymond's feast we should remember that, "carolling and story telling belong to the whole Christmas season. Hospitality and giving to others also must continue if true Christmas joy is to remain. An outing to which friends are invited or a party that includes a round of carolling become perhaps even more appropriate with the approach of Epiphany." — Excerpted from The Twelve Days of Christmas
January 8, Christmas Weekday
Dawn is the time of day in which the first rays of light begin to glimmer, to illumine and dispel the darkness. . . Christ’s actual birth in Bethlehem shows forth the beautiful reality that God works with things according to their nature. Simply put, it makes perfect sense that a darkened world istangibly illumined by divine, supernatural intervention upon the natural. — Father Wade L. J. Menezes, CPM
Candles are a symbol of Christ, the Light of the World. The wax is regarded as typifying in a most appropriate way the flesh of Jesus Christ born of a virgin mother. From this has sprung the further conception that the wick symbolizes more particularly the soul of Jesus Christ and the flame the Divinity which absorbs and dominates both. — Catholic Encyclopedia
January 9, Christmas Weekday
St. Francis initiated the beautiful practice of displaying a Christmas crib or creche. He built it in a cave on a bleak mountain near the village of Greccio. News of what he was doing spread all over the countryside and a steady stream of men, women and chldren came by night carrying torches and candles to light their way.
"It seemed like midday," wrote someone who was there, "during that midnight filled with gladness for man and beast, and the crowds drawing near, so happy to be present for the renewal of the eternal mystery." Francis himself sang the Gospel story in a voice which was "strong and sweet and clear," says the observer. "Then he preached to the people, most movingly, about the birth of the poor King in little Bethlehem." — Excerpted from Christmas
January 10, Christmas Weekday
Every country in the world has its own Christmas customs. Christmas in Australia is often very hot. Whereas the northern hemisphere is in the middle of winter, Australians are baking in summer heat. It is not unusual to have Christmas Day well into the mid 30 degrees Celsius, or near 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
A traditional meal includes a turkey dinner, with ham, and pork. A flaming Christmas plum pudding is added for dessert. In the Australian gold rushes, Christmas puddings often contained a gold nugget. Today a small favor is baked inside. Whoever finds this knows that they will enjoy good luck. Another treat is Mince Pies.
It is Father Christmas who brings the presents to the Australian children on Christmas Eve. Homes and gardens are decorated with greenery, Christmas tree and fairy lights. Seasonal plants are the Christmas bush and the Christmas bell.
January 11, Christmas Weekday
In Mexico El Día de Los Tres Reyes (Day of the Three Kings) celebrates the arrival of Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar at the place of Jesus' birth.
The day is also known as El Día de Los Reyes Magos (Magi) in Spanish and Epiphany in English commemorates the divinity of Christ as manifested to the Magi, the kings who brought him gifts.
On the night before El Día de Los Reyes, the children fill their shoes with hay and leave them outside. It is believed that the Wise Men will stop at each home to feed their horses, leaving gifts in exchange for hay.
Finally, El Día de Los Reyes arrives, and the whole family wakes up to open the gifts left by the Three Kings. However, this is only the beginning. On that day, family and friends gather, while the children keep busy playing with their new toys.
The adults continue with the day's activities by preparing a big dinner and serving a very special dessert, a bread known as La Rosca de Reyes or Three Kings Bread. — by Frances Chaparro, Estela Muñoz and Adrian Zamilpa
January 12, Christmas Weekday
God is your beatitude. The things of time are toys. You are eternity's child and your eternity has already begun! There is a compelling urgency to every day and every hour of the day. In it we are to witness to the truth – that God greeted and gifted us at Christmas.
If you know what witness means, you understand why God brings St. Stephen, St. John, and the Holy Innocents to the crib in the cave as soon as Christ is born liturgically. To be a witness is to be amartyr. Holy Mother Church wishes us to realize that we were born in baptism to become Christ – He who was the world's outstanding Martyr. – Love Does Such Things, by Rev. M. Raymond, O.C.S.O.
January 13, Feast of the Baptism of Christ
Today we celebrate the baptism of Christ in the Jordan. This is the second epiphany, or manifestation, of the Lord. The past, the present, and the future are made manifest in this epiphany.
The most holy one placed Himself among us, the unclean and sinners. The Son of God freely humbled Himself at the hand of the Baptist. By His baptism in the Jordan, Christ manifests His humility and dedicates Himself to the redemption of man. He takes upon Himself the sins of the whole world and buries them in the waters of the Jordan. — The Light of the World by Benedict Baur, O.S.B.