Sunday, January 6, 2019

A Big Christmas Season, a Little Epiphany

The twelve days of Christmas may (finally) be over, but their inspiration for carols we still (sometimes) sing is not. The arrival of the Magi became the genesis, centuries later, for not only numerous portrayals in art, but two familiar tunes: "We Three Kings" and "As with Gladness Men of Old." (For those who may not recall that second catchy tune, take a listen here.)

That trail of Christmas hits of the 1850s may be some of the few vestiges of that entire partying span of time once packaged together as the Twelve Days of Christmas. That, and the fact that, at this very moment (for those of you who are up, reading this post with your morning coffee somewhere back east), my husband's cousins and their children are eagerly pouncing on their gifts, rather than the event others might have indulged in on December 25.

As for the rest of those twelve days, I imagine only the most devout of Catholic ancestors might have paid any notice to the calendar of feast days closing out the old year and opening up the new. (And perhaps a few hearty party-goers might have dragged the celebration out much farther than when everyone else was ready to call it a night.)

So what can we say is our claim on the roots of this holiday season? Do you recognize anything of your holiday traditions that might point specifically to an ethnic background?

Perhaps that is where I received my personal epiphany about this holiday season. Though my family never celebrated any such event (at least that I can recall), I had always heard of the twelve days of Christmas. I became slightly more sensitized to it when I moved from my childhood home in New York to live in "sunny" California (where, I assure you, the morning temperatures do, indeed, dip below freezing). Here, for instance, it is very obviously the custom to not take down one's Christmas decorations until Epiphany—witness all the holiday lights on the housetops and the still-lit Christmas trees leading up to today—a vestige of a culture more influenced by that Twelve Days custom.

Other than that, though, I knew very little about the custom of these twelve days. So, after all these years, I decided to look it up—to see for myself what this was all about.

What I found was a very far-reaching link back to events of historical significance in the Middle Ages in various countries in Europe, and their outgrowth in some customs which became part of the Christmas season. Though some traditions might have been inspired by a particular day—witness the Boxing Day carol we know as Good King Wenceslas for the second day of Christmas—such surprises linking particular Christmas carols to specific days were some of the only connections I could make to an actual calendar of commemorations for these twelve days. Even the church calendar for the feast day designations seemed not to relate to historic events—or to be hastily-contrived redirections for a nascent church emerging on a continent previously held sway by pagan celebrations.

Perhaps, if it were not for that holiday song about the Twelve Days of Christmas, I'd have never given the phrase any thought. After all this personal inquiry, it seems at best in its current vestiges of whatever the original Middle Ages impetus might have been, that the concept of a Twelve Days of Christmas represents a romanticized version of a season of great cheer and celebration. And that—whether with a saint designated specifically for each day—is indeed what we have managed to do. Only now, we've shifted our holiday cheer to precede the event, rather than letting the main event launch the season.

However you and your family have historically celebrated this season we've just completed, I hope it was one which brought you peace and happiness. As for me, with the last of my holiday decorations tucked safely in their storage boxes for another year, I'm looking to getting back to work on family history research projects, especially in preparation for the class I'll be attending at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy in only a short while.

At our home, it won't exactly be "A New Year, a New Me," but I'm looking forward to some research planning, refocusing on specific family history goals for 2019. Holidays are fun, and an extended holiday season at the end of the year comes with its own warm fuzzies, but it's nice to get back to the work of tackling some new research challenges with the energy of a new year.



  1. I have enjoyed this series. Not crazy about some of the "celebrations", but very informative.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Miss Merry. After hearing that phrase "twelve days of Christmas" but not knowing anything about it, I had to settle it in my mind once and for all. It's a good thing you didn't mind that "for all" part...

  2. I have observed that places without sno really decorate and keep their decoration up a long time! Aloha

    1. That's interesting, Far Side. I hadn't thought of snow as a factor around here, though it is true that we seldom, if ever, get any. But back east in New York, and even in Ohio, where my grandparents lived, the snow was so merry, it made sense to let the Christmas spirit linger a little longer. Hard to mix a "Christmas-y" mood with a little walk on the beach, I'd think ;)


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