December 2, 2020

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Okay, I’m late with this, but on the other hand, as I’m sitting here gorged on turkey and ham and Brussels sprouts and carrots and parsnips and roast potatoes and bread sauce and gravy and mince pies and prosecco and sherry trifle and Butlers’ chocolates collection and shortbread and Bailey’s Irish Cream, you’re lucky to be getting anything from me before, oh, St. Bridget’s Day.

There have been four versions of the General Roman Calendar (the Tridentine Calendar, the General Roman Calendar of 1954, the General Roman Calendar of Pope Pius XII and the General Roman Calendar of 1962) and the one we have now is the post-Vatican II one, which means that some feast days have been dropped, moved, or altered, as well as new ones introduced.  There is also the calendar of Saints of the Day, which has saints’ days not in the General Calendar.  All this means that not all of the Christmastide days have official saints associated with them; some were local, or obscure, or not obligatory for the universal church, or have been dropped.

  1. 25th December – Christmas Day; the beginning of Christmastide.  Vestments for the season are white, the colour of the joy and purity of the soul or gold, the colour of great solemnities.  The Nativity of the Lord: three Masses may be said on this day because of its great importance; the first Mass at midnight; the second Mass at dawn (the second Mass of Christmas Day is also the memorial of St. Anastasia, martyr and one of the seven female saints mentioned in the Roman Canon or Eucharistic Rite I of the Mass) and the third Mass during the day.
  2. 26th December – St. Stephen’s Day; feast of St. Stephen, the Protomartyr (meaning “first martyr”).  Vestments for today are red because it’s the feast of a martyr and red is for blood.  Martha, you ask me, how can I easily tell the difference in art between St. Stephen, martyr, and St. Laurence, martyr, given that they are both represented vested as deacons? I do not want to make an elementary error in identification and be sniggered at as an ignoramus and Philistine!  Relax, dear earnest enquirer, this one is easy.  Just be glad they’re not Dominicans – distinguishing between one guy in a black-and-white habit and another guy in a black-and-white habit is a lot tougher.  St. Laurence will have a gridiron while St. Stephen will be represented with stones, often balanced on his head and shoulders as in this image, which means any laughter will be at his expense and not yours.  Yes – the Catholic Church, making “death by stoning” something to giggle at since the 12th century!  Appropriate carol: “Good King Wenceslas” who looked out “on the feast of Stephen” which is today!


3. 27th December – St. John the Evangelist, Apostle.

4. 28th December – The Feast of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs.  Appropriate carol: the Coventry Carol

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Next time you hear anyone going on about how Christianity is a warm and fuzzy crutch for the feeble-minded, remember this feast day – the massacre of two-year old male infants for political purposes.  Yes, that’s escapism from the realities of the world, right enough.

5. 29th December – St. Thomas à Becket, Bishop and Martyr.

6. 30th December – The Holy Family (Jesus, Mary and Joseph, as you will know if you’ve ever been in earshot when an Irishman has hit his thumb with a hammer).  Slightly changeable, as it is celebrated on the Sunday after Christmas or on December 30th.  When Christmas falls on Sunday, as it does this year, it is celebrated December 31st.  Also the feast of St. Egwin, but raise your hands all those of you who’ve ever heard of St. Egwin?  Yeah, that’s what I thought.

7. 31st December – St. Sylvester I, Pope.  An obscure figure now, but he used to be very important, mainly in the “Pope in the reign of Emperor Constantine I.  Built the Basilica of Saint John Lateran and other churches.  Sent legates to the First Council of Nicaea, and was involved in the controversy over Arianism.  The spurious Donation of Constantine was supposedly given to Saint Sylvester.”  Various miracles are attributed to him, such as healing Constantine, defeating a dragon and restoring its victims.

8.  1st January – Old name, the Feast of the Circumcision.  New name, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.  Because it’s not like we have enough Marian feasts during the year.  Personally I’d have kept the older name as being Biblical and Scriptural, but then again, I’m not the pope.  Any worried Protestants, please rest assured that this is not Mariolatry; the emphasis on the Theotokos, as always, has to do with the divinity of Christ and the Incarantion of God-made-Man; God with us, who was a man like us, in all things but sin.  Appropriate carol: this one, from the Kilmore Carols, “This First Day of the Year”

9.  2nd January – Ss. Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen, Bishops and Doctors of the Church, venerated in both Western and Eastern Christianity.  Used to be the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, which got moved to the next day.

10. 3rd January – The Most Holy Name of Jesus.  Strongly associated with the Feast of the Circumcision, and still celebrated on 1st January by some denominations.  St. Bernadine of Siena fostered devotion to the Holy Name in the 14th century and spread the use of the IHS monogram.

11. 4th January – St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.  Congratulations, Americans, you got a saint inserted here!

12. 5th January – St. John Neumann:  “Saint John Nepomucene Neumann was a Redemptorist missionary to the United States who became the fourth Bishop of Philadelphia (1852–60) and the first American bishop (and thus far the only male citizen) to be canonized.”  Congratulations again, America!  Also the feast of St. Charles of St. Andrew, better known here in Ireland as Fr. Charles of Mount Argus. This is also Twelfth Night, the eve of Epiphany.  See Shakespeare’s play for details of the hijinks and goings-on that used to be traditional for this night.

13. 6th January – Epiphany, The Three Kings, Little Christmas.  Gentlemen, in Irish tradition, today is the day you tell your loved ones and nearest and dearest of the female persuasion to sit back, put their feet up, and you’ll handle all the housework.  Nowadays it’s more the tradition for a ‘girls’ night out’.  The end of Christmastide – well, according to some.  According to others, the Baptism of Our Lord, which is celebrated on the first Sunday after Epiphany, brings the Christmas season to a close.  Anyway, this is also traditionally the day in Ireland when you take down the Christmas decorations (and put them away carefully until next year, which we all do of course, instead of just balling them up and shoving them in the cupboard under the stairs, right?)

But Martha, that makes thirteen days, not twelve!

Well, you know, Catholics can’t count too good  (insert jokes about the rhythm method here, thankyouverymuch) and besides, there will be at least one Sunday in there somewhere, and Sundays don’t get counted (it’s true!  That’s why Sundays in Lent don’t count as fast days – and cue all the Orthodox looking down their noses at the soft, decadent Romans).  Besides, you can’t have too many days of celebration.

And to round things up, if you’re looking for a slightly different take on the “Twelve Days of Christmas” carol, here’s a 1982 version from the Irish actor and comedian, Frank Kelly (some of you may know him as Father Jack from “Father Ted”):


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  1. That looks like (gasp!) Happy Holidays!!! Sacrilege. Somebody call the Merry Christmas police.

  2. I saw this Peanuts cartoon where Lucy is saying that for the last three months, she counted the weeks till Christmas, and for the last week she counted the days till Christmas, and for the last day she counted the minutes and seconds to Christmas, and, then, she screams, “BUT NOW ITS ALL OVER!”

    If only she had know about the 12 days of Christmas.

    Another great article on this, “Cheated Out of Christmas” here:

    Let’s stop cheating ourselves out of Christmas!

  3. The Holy Innocents sounds suspiciously like the story of Moses and the command to kill all the Hebrew sons in Exodus.

    • cermak_rd

      Similar story, but New Testament.
      Herod the Great and the murder of the male children in Bethlehem.
      Holy Innocents = First Christian Martyrs

  4. Absolutely great post, it was and is a real gift!

  5. I love this kind of church history stuff — thanks, Martha!

  6. Wonderful, Martha. In America, St. Stephen’s Day (Dec 26) is also the day we consumers throw stones at each other so we can try to be first in line at the post-Christmas sales.

  7. David Cornwell says

    Several years ago before I retired Marge and I hosted a Twelfth Night party in our parsonage. This wasn’t an affair connected with the church, but something we invited a few disparate people to attend. Some of them didn’t even know each other. One was a college professor from the school Marge where was working on her Master’s degree, along with his wife; another pastor and his wife; one of my daughters and her fiancee; and four people from the churches I served at the time. In all there were 12 invited persons if I remember correctly. Every person was invited to bring something that mattered in a personal way and then to tell whey it meant so much. One person wrote a poem for the occasion. The tales they told were at times funny, while one was very solemn.
    Those who attended talked about this party for a long time.

    Sitting here I can’t remember all the details, except we both remember it as one of the best times we’ve had. In fact just a few days ago we tentatively decided to plan another one, maybe for next Christmas.

    Thanks Martha for all this information. I will be saving it.

    • No problem. Today, for instance, being the feast day of St. Thomas of Canterbury (the shrine to which Chaucer’s pilgrims were travelling), is a good day to thank your bishop (if you have one).

      Or if you want to celebrate your bishop in a different way, many of the illustrations of St. Thomas show him being executed by the king’s knights, and we get nice images of the top of his head being lopped off (sometimes resting in his mitre for that added touch of versimiltude, as in this one, if you look closely).

      So if you are suffering under a turbulent priest, think of St. Thomas on his feast day, and console yourself with the fates such sometimes meet!


      • David Cornwell says

        “…top of his head being lopped off (sometimes resting in his mitre for that added touch of versimiltude, as in this one, if you look closely).

        So if you are suffering under a turbulent priest, think of St. Thomas on his feast day, and console yourself with the fates such sometimes meet!”

        Maybe bringing back some the old traditions is a good idea! Who decides which bishop should undergo these sufferings?

  8. I fear Brussels sprouts. They are showing up everywhere these days.

  9. Martha, some of this comes in handy.

    I’m putting together a sermon for New Year’s Day (pastor away, and I’m in hopes it has nothing to do with football) and I’ll be preaching on Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

    That is, a look back (sins of 2011, whatever they were; and whatever Paul had in his closet in Romans 7) and a look forward to 2012 (chapter 8, no condemnation, etc). So your report on the 8th day of Christmas is useful: We begin the new year, it turns out, on the Feast of Circumcision, the 8th day, in which a Jewish boy is circumcised and given his name. There’s an nteresting Christian (Catholic) twist, that on this day the first drop of Christ’s blood was shed, beginning the redemptive process (and so with all the significance of this, why, oh why revert to another Marian holiday? Maybe you should be the pope.).

    By the way, I was thinking of you last night after dinner. My girls are home for the holidays and they lugged in a bottle of Ryan’s Irish Cream Liqueur (they wanted to get Bailey’s, but this stuff was half the price). They also brought (and Joanie will appreciate this) a bottle of Allen’s Coffee-Flavored Brandy, the unofficial drink of our state of Maine (“You’re lucky to get this,” they were told by the girl at the One-Stop, “this sells out fast.”). I hadn’t had any of that stuff since I was about their age, and now I remember why.

    Anyway, Happy New Year from this Baptist who apparently hasn’t taught his kids well. But there is therefore now no condemnation…

  10. “Allen’s Coffee-Flavored Brandy, the unofficial drink of our state of Maine…”

    Ted, I have neighbors who drink that all the time. I think I may have had some in my early twenties, but it’s been a LONG time. But it is funny how popular it is with Mainers. The Maine legislature passes some odd laws…maybe they SHOULD make this the “Maine drink.” 🙂

    • It’s probably the most alcohol content for the dollar, and in these hard times… But, it’s like really cheap brandy that somebody dumped into some strong instant coffee. Yesterday’s instant coffee.

      Happy New Year anyway, and to your neighbors!