Question: What are the 12 days of Christmas?
We all know the famous song about the 12 Days of Christmas, and the better one about the 12 Yats of Christmas, but what are the 12 days of Christmas? Early in the Church there were disagreements about the date of Jesus’ birth. Some believed it was in March, some during June or July, but most people settled on either December 25 or January 6. Therefore, both of these days became important feast days related to the birth of Christ. On December 25 we celebrate Christmas and on January 6 we celebrate Epiphany, which is the revelation, or making known, of the birth of Christ by the Magi. Since there are 12 days in between Christmas and Epiphany, with Epiphany being on the 13th day, we traditionally celebrate Christmas for all 12 of those days. Therefore, the 12 days of Christmas don’t end on December 25, they begin on December 25.
Question: Who were the Magi?
In the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew we read about people who visit Jesus after he was born. The Bible calls them magoi, singular magos, which we normally translate as wise men. It doesn’t call them kings, like in the popular song “We Three Kings,” but that idea might have started because of the expensive gifts that they bring, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Similarly, we normally think of three wise men, or three kings, but the Bible doesn’t say that there were three of them, only that they brought three gifts. The Bible says that they came from the east, but it doesn’t specify exactly where they came from. The Magi originally referred to a group in Persia, where Turkey is located now, who performed religious rites and rituals in the Persian religion as well as practicing astronomy and astrology, which would explain how they saw the star and knew what it meant. This makes a good case for Persia, but the word “magi” was used for similar people in other areas as well, so we can’t be sure exactly where they came from. What we do know is that the coming of the magi to worship Jesus was a sign that people from other gentile nations would also recognize Jesus and come to worship God as well.
Question: Since Christmas isn’t in the Bible, why do we celebrate it?
Even though we don’t know for sure when Jesus was born, we celebrate his birth on December 25 because it’s good to set aside special dates to celebrate important things, and the birth of Jesus Christ is one of the most important things that have ever happened in human history. The idea of celebrating important things at a certain time comes from our Jewish heritage. In the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament, the Lord gives Israel certain times to celebrate special feast days to remember the Passover and other events that show God’s love and care for them. We still celebrate Passover and Pentecost, which were originally Jewish, Old Testament feasts, but we celebrate them in the Christian context. Therefore, it made sense to most of the early Christians to choose a date to celebrate the birth of Jesus as well. So, Christmas may not be specifically in the Bible, but it is inspired by a Biblical world view and fully supported by the Church.
Question: Is Christmas based on a pagan festival?
You may have heard that Christmas is just a Christian version of the Roman pagan festival of the Unconquerable Sun, Sol Invictus, or Saturnalia, which celebrated the god Saturn, but this is not supported by good historical research. Saturnalia was celebrated on December 17, and later extended until December 23, but it was over before December 25, so there doesn’t seem to be any connection. As for Sol Invictus, the first reference we have to the birth of Jesus being on December 25 is by St. Hippolytus of Rome writing around the year 204 AD. However, the first reference we have to the feast of Sol Invictus being on December 25 is in a work called the Chronography of A.D. 354, which was written nearly 150 years after the first reference to December 25 as the birth of Christ. In fact, the cult of Sol Invictus doesn’t seem to have been very popular in Rome until the reign of Aurelius from 270-275 AD, also after the above date. However, even if it does turn out to be true, it would do nothing to undermine the Christian faith in Jesus as the true Son of God and Light of the world.
Once a month I’ll write an article answering a question from a parishioner on the Church, the Mass and sacraments, the Bible, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints, spiritual theology, or anything related to Christianity. Either write your question down and put it in the collection basket, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fr. Bryan became pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes on July 3, 2017. Read his bio here.