The season of Advent is coming to a close, and Christmastide is finally upon us—twelve days of it, in fact.
Because I didn’t grow up in a liturgical church, my only exposure to the twelve days of Christmas was the popular Christmas Carol, and while I knew all of the words by heart (my chamber choir performed it multiple times each year—complete with actions), I never quite knew when the twelve days of Christmas actually were. (The twelve days before Christmas? Whenever Ellen Degeneres does her Twelve Days of Giveaways?)
Whenever I discovered the liturgical calendar and learned about Advent and the Christmas season that followed, I finally found my answer. (The true Christmas season is twelve days after all—who would have thought?) And while I finally knew the exact date for when to expect to receive ten lords a-leaping, I wasn’t quite sure how to mark each day. Because I had embraced the invitation of waiting and keeping vigil that Advent brings, I wanted my celebration of Christmas to be as filled with intention as the season that had passed. And so I dug a bit further, uncovering multiple feast days and invitations already imbedded in the season, and filled in the blanks with invitations and traditions that seem equally fitting to mark the light that the season brings.
Want to join me in this full-on celebration? Here are twelve ideas for marking the twelve days of Christmas (way cheaper than the song, I promise):
first day of Christmas – December 25: rejoice
The wait of Advent is over on Christmas day as we celebrate the light. Many of us will be gathering with family and friends for a day filled with food and community. Still, there are others who might be spending this day alone. However you spend this day, may the story of Christmas create space for rejoicing, even if the light might seem dim in this season of life.
second day of Christmas – December 26: give
After a day marking the birth of Jesus, the Christmas season briefly shifts its focus to what it means to live (and die) for Christ. The three feast days that follow Christmas Day recognize three types of martyrs: the willing and executed (Stephen), the willing and not executed (John), and the unwilling and executed (Holy Innocents).
December 26 is the feast day of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and is a day to remember the sacrifices we make for what we believe in. It’s also Boxing Day in many countries around the world, a tradition that originated in Europe in the Middle Ages through almsgiving (via a box in the sanctuary). In 19th century England, the tradition expanded to include employees, who would often receive boxes of money or gifts in gratitude for their service throughout the year. (The beginning of the Christmas bonus, perhaps?) With all of these traditions in mind, this is a great day to focus on end-of-year giving to those in need.
third day of Christmas – December 27: serve
The Feast of St. John the Evangelist falls on December 27 and invites us into a day of service as we remember what we have come to declare as good news and seek to spread that light to others. Sign up to volunteer at a local food pantry or homeless shelter, or spend time picking up trash along the road or the beach. Nature, after all, is the first revelation of God!
fourth day of Christmas – December 28: remember
Set apart from the previous three days, the Commemoration of the Holy Innocents is more somber in tone as we remember the innocent slain by King Herod in his attempts to find the Christ child—a story retold in the lesser-known Christmas song, “Coventry Carol.” In the midst of our feasting and celebration, the Commemoration of the Holy Innocents offers an opportunity to remember the innocent and marginalized who still live in the shadows and calls us to action as we bring their stories into the light.
fifth day of Christmas – December 29: welcome
By now, it’s likely that many friends are returning home after family festivities. However, since Christmas lasts twelve days, we know it’s far from over! Practice hospitality by bringing your community together for a gathering filled with Christmas cheer without the pressure that Christmas Day brings.
sixth day of Christmas – December 30: savor
With New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day just around the corner it won’t be long before the kids have to go back to school and you have to get back to work (unless you’ve gone back already). Set aside this day to really savor your favorite parts of the season—warmth, wonder, togetherness—and make some cookies or have a holiday movie marathon while you’re at it. (Pajamas suggested.)
seventh day of Christmas – December 31: reflect
New Year’s Eve is more often associated with parties and countdowns, but it’s also a great day to reflect on the year that has passed, from sorrows to celebrations and everything in between. I like to make this time of reflection a special outing, and it has become a favorite ritual over the years. You can either do this alone through journaling or with family and friends by recounting the year month by month as you recall what happened in each person’s life.
eighth day of Christmas – January 1: name
In the Christian church, New Year’s Day is also the Feast of the Holy Name, commemorating the day Jesus was named in the temple. To name is to imbue with meaning, and this feast day and the holiday that accompanies it invites us to also name our hopes and desires for the year to come. My favorite way to do this is to have a word for the year. Many people choose a word themselves, which is a great way to name and set your intentions, but I’m a fan of Christine Valters Paintner’s method, which involves prayerfully “receiving” a word that will guide you in the year ahead. Read my past selections and go through the process yourself here.
ninth day of Christmas – January 2: renew
“Always we begin again,” St. Benedict so wisely states in his Rule. The arrival of Christ in human form is a new beginning, and each year offers a new beginning too. Traditionally, we’re prompted to set New Year’s Resolutions, but what if instead we committed to New Year Renewals, returning again to what we know brings us light and life? Led by your word for the year and inspired by the Incarnation, consider which commitments and practices you would like to renew in the new year, and invite those around you to do the same.
tenth day of Christmas – January 3: delight
While everyone might be heading back to their everyday routines by now, the Christmas season is still not over, instead inviting us to celebrate even in the midst of the most ordinary of days. One way to do this is to participate in something that brings you delight. Enthusiasm, after all, comes from entheos, which means “in God,” and so to celebrate our enthusiasm and delights is to name the ways God is in and with each one of us.
eleventh day of Christmas – January 4: listen
The Christmas season is filled with sounds—the singing of carols, the brightness of laughter, the ripping open of presents, the crackling of the fire—and yet the softest sound of all provides the greatest impact: the Incarnation, the Divine breaking into the world through the birth of Jesus in the most unexpected of places. As the twelve days of Christmas nears its end, set aside time to not only listen to your favorite holiday album or sounds of the season—listen to your life, to your community, and to the world. Where is the Incarnation happening now, in this moment? Where is the Divine breaking into the world in the most unexpected places? It is always there that you will find Christ, and, consequently, Life.
twelfth day of Christmas – January 5: follow
In many ancient traditions, the day began at sundown, and so while the Feast of Epiphany is celebrated on January 6, it actually begins on January 5, or the “twelfth night” of Christmas, as it was celebrated in Medieval times. As the twelve days of the Christmas season come to a close, we remember the three wise men, true Seekers of the Sacred who, unlike many others during that time, knew the Divine when they saw it. A capstone celebration, the twelfth day of Christmas is the perfect time to gather together for one last hurrah through traditions both old and new: blessing the house by chalking the door, enjoying King Cake in honor of the wise men, and sharing our hopes for the year with others—the stars that will guide us and the light that we carry into the season to come.