THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS
THE DEATH OF A STAR AND THE BIRTH OF THE SON OF GOD There is a rational explanation for the Star of Bethlehem. Theories include an alignment of Jupiter, Saturn, Earth and Sun, possibly in the constellation of Pisces. The ‘star’ could also have been a comet observed by Chinese astronomers in 5BC or Halley’s Comet in 12BC – both might have had their tails pointing downward towards Bethlehem. The most plausible explanation comes from McMaster University, Ontario. Far Eastern astronomers observed the death of a star or nova in the constellation of Aquila in 4BC. Unfortunately, astronomers in Western Europe were unable to see this heavenly event due to their geographical location. The Magi are thought to be Babylonian astronomers who, over the long period of their travel from Babylon to Judea, would have seen this ‘new’ star precess in the heavens until it was over Bethlehem. In a few months the star would have faded away. Authorities assert Jesus was born between 6BC and 4BC which coincides with the death of this star.
ADVENT This is an enlightening romp, divine and profane, across the Twelve Days of Christmas. It is a journey of Jewish faith, Roman idolatry, Anglo Saxon veneration, Medieval frivolity and finally to 21st century enlightenment! Our practice and perception of Christmas festivities is very different to that of 1,500 years ago but quirky customs still survive.
The period of Advent, popularised incorrectly on pre-Christmas calendars, was originally a forty day period in the desert that ended on the 6th January with the Feast of Epiphany.
In the 4th century, the early Christian church required converts to spend forty days and forty nights in the desert to purify their souls before baptism at the Feast of Epiphany. Initially there was no connection between Advent and Christmas. By the 6th century, the Roman church had tied Advent to the Second Coming of Christ to judge mankind. By the Middle Ages, the Advent period was ordained to be the period of preparation for the birth of Christ. It is fortuitous that Advent and Epiphany straddle the Twelve Days of Christmas and thus brings the Festive Season to a close – but not quite. The Matthew Gospel written around 60 AD, at this early stage in church consolidation, considered the Feast of Epiphany to commemorate the Manifestation of Christ to the gentiles symbolised as the Magi or Three Wise Men.
TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS
Now for Christmas Day. In the 3rd century, a Roman bishop fixed the 25th December as Christ’s birth date. The decision was made to ween wavering Christians from the Roman festivals of Saturnalia and the birthday of Mithra, Persian God of Light – 17th-24th December, and the Roman Festival of Sol Invictus on the 25th December. The roots of the Christmas Festival derive from the Christos Maesse which was introduced in the 4th century.
And so it has come to pass that the Twelve Days of Christmas are defined by Christmas Day (25 December) and the Festival of Epiphany (6th January) – but again not quite. In early Christian Britain, King Edwine of Deira and Northumbria (circa 630 AD), ordained that Christmas decorations should not be removed until the 6th January to honour his mother’s birthday thus, Twelfth Night was created on the whim of an Anglo Saxon king.
In early Christian times, the period between Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night contained several religious festivals lubricated by much merry-making and wenching. From the Dark Ages to Late Medieval Times, communities proclaimed “Lords of Misrule” to organise festivities for the illiterate masses. In Scotland this was the Abbott of Unreason and in France the Prince des Sots. The ‘Lord’ might be a ‘boy bishop’ or a peasant drawn from the crowd. The principal responsibility was to plan and preside over the Christmas season festivities, culminating in the Festival of Foules around the 1st January where the participation of junior clergy was encouraged.
The current Boxing Day, 26th December, was formerly the Feast of St Stephen, to mark his martyrdom. Activities for the day included distributing the remains of feasts to the poor. History has it that King Wenceslas of Bohemia (907-935) initiated this custom and enshrined it in the carol ‘Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen’, to see an old man who subsequently dined and supped on flesh and wine brought by the page boy.
The Feast of St John the Evangelist, 27th December, records the life of an apostle who was not martyred like many of his compatriots. In Medieval times, the Holy Church Fathers directed St John to be painted with a ‘softened face’ to endear him to women in order to encourage piety and chastity! This had minimal effect since women were still fitted with chastity belts when menfolk left for the Crusades.
The Feast of the Holy Innocents, 28th December, commemorates the murder of Jewish infants by King Herod the Great, puppet to the Roman governor. Herod had heard rumours of the coming Messiah and so was determined to ensure that this prophecy did not come to pass. The Magi were instructed to inform on the where abouts of the Baby Jesus, but they left Judea without passing on the information. Myth surrounds the number of infants killed – estimates vary from hundreds to a few tens. There are no records.
The Feast of the Ass, 29th December. This was a 6th century custom derived from the pagan Celtic games of Cervulus. By Medieval times, the donkey had become part of the Nativity story. In church services on this day the congregation responded to prayers and psalms with the braying of an ass in place of AMEN.
The Feast of Christ’s Circumcision, 1st January, celebrated the Jewish custom of circumcision applied to all infants soon after birth. In the deserts of Judea this was necessary for health reasons – Church teachings hold this was the ‘first’ shedding of Christ’s Blood.
The Feast of Foules, on the 31st December, was the culmination of the Christo Maesse Festivals. The feast was originally organised for the junior clergy but soon included freemen and villeins. Ecclesiastical ritual was parodied as low and high clergy changed places for the day.
Twelfth Night falls on the 5th January if the First Day of Christmas is indeed Christmas Day. However, some branches of Christianity consider the Feast of Epiphany on the 6th January to be the 12th Day of Christmas, thus the Feast of Saint Stephen becomes the First Day of Christmas. King Edwine of Deira may be the final arbiter since decorations may only be taken down from the 6th January!! In Elizabethan England, Twelfth Night was a festival celebrated with music, masked balls, misrule, revelry and debauchery. Shakespeare’s play, Twelfth Night, is an amusing moralistic farce on the hazards of dressing-up and the tension between alcoholic gluttony and puritanical lust epitomised by Sir Toby Belch and Malvolio. It is a play about hopeless love and other agues that afflicted “Merrie England” – and are still with us today.
The Feast of Epiphany on the 6th January, was celebrated by the early church as the end of forty days and forty nights in the desert culminating in baptism. At a later date the Church decreed the Feast Day to be recognised as the Proclamation of the Gospel by Jesus.
TE DEUM LAUDAMUS
The Christian religion and associated belief and ritual derived from cultures and customs for over two thousand years that spoke Aramaic, Latin, Persian, Celtic, Chaucer’s English and Shakespeare’s English. Any religion is ultimately a construct where myth and fact merge into belief. The Christian West has give the the majority of mankind the “Twelve Days of Christmas”. For a substantial minority, the period commences with Christo Maesse and terminates with the Feast of Epiphany. However, for an increasing global majority, the festive season commences with the purchase of consumables and ends on the whim of King Edwine of Deira.
|DAY||DATE||FEAST, FEASTIVAL, DEBAUCH|
|1||25||Christmas Day - The Nativity. Lord of Misrule controls festivities.|
|2||26||Feast of Saint Spephen - feeding the poor.|
|3||27||Feast of Saint John the Evangelist - witness to the Incarnation.|
|4||28||Feast of the Holy Innocents - King Herod's massacre.|
|5||29||Feast of the Ass - commemoration of the Donkey.|
|7||31||Festival of Foules - for the junior Clergy and the masses.|
|8||1||Feast of Christ's Circumcision - first shedding of Blood by the Saviour.|
|12||5||Twelth Night, baudy gatherings & the legacy of King Edwine.|
|13||6||Feast of Ephiphany - celebrating Baptism and the Proclamation of the Gospel.|
HERE ENDETH THE LESSON
As with all things spiritual and temporal, if we can understand our ancestors then we can more easily comprehend the present and ‘in our cups’ can venture plausible projections for our descendants. Early Christians wisely spread their gift-giving over the Twelve Days of Christmas thereby reducing the stress from a deluge of unwanted baubles. Throughout the ‘Season’ there appeared to be continuous spiritual and gastronomic stimulation. (Trinity Lutheran Church, December 2016, The Real Twelve Days of Christmas)
And so to all a Medieval Festive Greeting –
“By mine own troth! May tou has’t a pipus did bless Christmas and a v’ry m’rry and prosp’rous year to cometh.”