Ask most Americans, and December marks the beginning of Christmas. When are the 12 Days of Christmas? Why, they’re December 14–25, the days leading up to Christmas Day.
But on the contrary, in the Christian tradition, the Twelve Days actually refer to the celebration of Christ’s nativity—also called “Christmastide”—between Christmas (December 25) and Epiphany (January 6), the day that celebrates the visit of the Magi. For this reason, the evening of January 5 is called “Twelfth Night,” made famous by William Shakespeare’s play of that title.
It is actually the American marketing machine that has led to the erroneous labeling of December 14–25 as THE Twelve Days of Christmas. For retail business, December 25 marks the end of the Christmas season.
The days preceding Christmas—four weeks to be exact—are more traditionally referred to as Advent, the time in which Christians have historically anticipated both the First and Second Comings of Jesus to earth. In the historical tradition, Christians don’t actually celebrate (or sing about) Christ’s birth until Christmas Eve, and then they continue to sing about and celebrate the Nativity for the Twelve Festival Days of the season.
This celebration of Advent is part of what we sometimes refer to as the “Christian Year” or the “Liturgical Calendar.” And often when the topic of the liturgical calendar comes up, some Christians (especially Baptists) get a little uneasy. Isn’t the liturgical calendar Catholic? they often ask. Should Christians really celebrate something like Advent?
A Brief History of the Christian Year
In order to answer that question, let’s begin with a little history on when and why observances of the Christian Year came developed.
The first annual liturgical celebration to emerge among early Christians was not surprisingly that of the death and resurrection of Christ, which in the New Testament era would have corresponded in time with the Jewish Passover. Often this celebration became the time when new converts were baptized. Over time, Christian leaders debated whether the resurrection of Christ should always be celebrated on a Sunday or if it should correspond to the Jewish Passover, which is determined by the new moon and therefore occurred on different weekdays each year.
In 325, the Council of Nicaea addressed the controversy over dating for the celebration of the resurrection of Christ. Though Christ’s death and resurrection occurred during the moveable feast of Passover on Nisan 14, according to gospel accounts, church leaders at Nicaea decided to separate their celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the Jewish calendar, which they considered to be disorganized and in error. Consequently, they determined that, contrary to modern Jewish dating of Nisan 14, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection should always occur on a Sunday following the vernal equinox (the beginning of spring, when the sun is directly above the equator). Later at the Synod of Whitby in 664, the standard tradition became to observe the holiday on the first Sunday following the full moon after the spring equinox. This is how we still mark the date of Easter today (even Baptists!).
Observances of other days in the church calendar developed similarly. Letters composed by Athanasius of Alexandria from 329–333 indicate an expansion of celebrating Christ’s resurrection to include the six days prior as “the holy days of Pascha,” now often called “Holy Week.” Later in 334 he enlarged the season even further with a forty-day period of preparation called “The Great Fast” (now called “Lent” from the “lengthening” of hours in spring), forty days corresponding to Christ’s period of preparation in the wilderness following his baptism. This practice appears to have solidified by the late-fourth century church order, Apostolic Constitutions.
A specific celebration of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week first appeared in Jerusalem shortly following the Edict of Milan in 313, when Christians there reenacted the event with a procession into the city that included waving palm branches and singing “Hosanna!”
The Apostolic Constitutions also mentions the celebration of Christmas, which, from a sermon of John Chrysostom (c.349–407), appears to have been first celebrated on December 25, 386 in Antioch. The establishment of that particular date arises from an ancient Jewish belief that great prophets of Israel died on the same date as their conception. Early Christians seem to have applied this belief to Jesus; thus, since March 25 was considered to be the original date of Christ’s death, they determined that it was also the date of his conception. Then, they simply added nine months to arrive at December 25. The popular notion that the date of Christmas arose from a “Christianization” of the pagan winter solstice festivals lacks any evidence.1Frank C. Senn, Introduction to Christian Liturgy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 113–115.
The Apostolic Constitutions also prescribes the festival of Epiphany (Greek meaning “to appear”) to be celebrated on January 6 in commemoration of the visit of the magi and Jesus’ childhood, including his baptism, Ascension Day forty days after Easter, and Pentecost ten days later. It is unclear when Advent first appeared, the period of preparation four weeks prior to Christmas, but monks in France observed the season at least as early as 480. Later, the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany were celebrated as the extended period of Christmastide.
Thus, by the end of the fifth century, the basic liturgical calendar had been formed:
|Four weeks before Christmas
|December 25–January 5
|The visit of the magi and Christ’s baptism
|Forty days prior to Easter
|Six days before Easter
|Christ’s suffering and death
|The first Sunday following the full moon after the spring equinox
|Forty days after Easter
|Fifty days after Easter
|The coming of the Holy Spirit
The importance of this brief history is to note, first, how early in church history these observances developed, and second, the fact that the development of these celebrations had no inherent connection to theological errors that eventually developed in medieval Catholicism.
Much later, Roman Catholicism added certain rituals to the observance of these holidays that embody problematic theology, and they added other “holy days” that celebrated so-called saints, Mary, and other Roman Catholic idolatrous practices.
However, the observance of these holidays themselves were originally nothing more than a time to focus special attention on particular events in the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and second coming of Jesus Christ. As the term “Christian Year” implies, these are way for Christians to sanctify the year, to always be driven to focus on Christ and the significance of his work on behalf of his people.
So this helps us to frame the original question a bit more clearly: Can Christians celebrate aspects of Christ’s life in their worship? Of course! In fact, we must regularly remember who Christ is and what he has done for us. We can and should do this at any time throughout the year, of course, but by intentionally setting aside certain times in the year to focus on specific aspects of Christ’s life ensure that we actually do so. Similar to preaching verse by verse through books of the Bible, intentional celebration of the Christian Year makes certain that we give proper attention to every aspect of Christ’s life each year.
Someone might object that by “scheduling” remembrances of Christ, we devolve into legalistic ritual. But think carefully about the logic of that objection. Would we say the same thing about celebration of the Lord’s Supper? Would we say the same with celebrating birthdays or anniversaries? Certainly not. We recognize that, although we should always value and celebrate life and marriage, setting aside particular days for remembrance is a good and even necessary thing; it helps us to recalibrate and ensure that we give those important realities the attention they deserve. We should expect nothing less for remembering Christ.
I always find it ironic when I hear American Christians state with convictions—and a little bit of piety—that they won’t be tied down by “Catholic” traditions like the Church Calendar, and yet through their actual practices they prove to be constrained by a liturgical calendar of another sort—The Liturgical Calendar of American Consumerism.
They insist that they won’t celebrate Epiphany, the Baptism of Christ, Palm Sunday, Holy Week, Eastertide, Pentecost, Ascension Day, Trinity Sunday, Advent, or the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas.
And yet instead, their churches celebrate New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, Easter Bunny Day, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, Father’s Day, Independence Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and a Christmas season stretching from Thanksgiving to Christmas Day—days with customs rooted not in biblical events or Christian tradition, but in the tradition of American consumerism.
There is no biblical mandate to celebrate the Church Year, and if someone chooses not to follow the traditional Church Calendar, I will not insist that they must.
Yet how Christians do celebrate seasons like Advent does reveals what most influences them. And as I often tell my students, it is impossible to avoid being influenced by some tradition; the question is, which tradition most influences your church’s practice, that of historic Christian churches or that of American commercialism?
Advent can be a wonderful time of the year to both remember the prophecies regarding Christ’s first coming and anticipate his coming again. If all of the prophecies concerning his first coming were fulfilled with complete literalness, we can have confidence that those prophecies yet to be fulfilled will also come to pass in his second coming.
The four weeks of Advent help us to remember and focus upon these themes. We ought not add any rituals or elements of worship beyond what God has prescribed in his Word; but through carefully chosen Scripture readings, hymns, prayers, and sermons, our hearts can be formed by Scripture to cry out as we should, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!”
|Frank C. Senn, Introduction to Christian Liturgy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 113–115.