January 5th is the 12th day of Christmas – and is also Epiphany Eve.
It may be surprising to some that Christmas in the Western Church* is not the month leading up to Christmas, but the twelve days from December 25th to January 5th (also known as Christmastide).
The twelve days of Christmas.
(And it’s got nothing to do with the gifts in the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ as a catechism song – see Snopes article that debunks this social media claim)
In Christian theology, the 12 days of Christmas is the period that marks the span between the birth of Christ and the coming of the Magi (usually known as the ‘three wise men’), and is often celebrated with a focus on various saints.
It’s traditional to add the figures of the Wise Men/Three Kings into the Nativity Scene on Epiphany Eve ready to celebrate Epiphany on the 6th January. (Is the nativity set might still set up?). It’s also traditional to take Christmas decorations down following the twelve days of Christmas. And the twelfth night is also associated with the custom of ‘wassailing’. Wondering how carol singing might be received by the neighbours today?
So, the Christmas season is less about the the commercialised lead up to Christmas, or ‘switching off’ in holiday mode after Christmas festivities – and more about the liturgical rhythm to celebrate the nativity of Christ long after the stores have finished playing Christmas carols.
In Tudor England, there was a tradition on “twelfth night” when the king and his upper-echelon would become the peasants, and vise versa. The elite would become servants for the peasants. At the beginning of the ‘twelfth night’ festival, a cake containing a bean was eaten. The person who found the bean became king and would run the feast. Midnight brought an end to his rule and the world would return to normal. Interesting tradition in the light of Mary’s Magnificat where the ‘social order’ is upended.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,(verses from Luke 1:46-55)
and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
“The Magnificat is a revolutionary song of salvation whose political, economic, and social dimensions cannot be blunted. People in need in every society hear a blessing in this canticle. The battered woman, the single parent without resources, those without food on the table or without even a table, the homeless family, the young abandoned to their own devices, the old who are discarded: all are encompassed in the hope Mary proclaims.”Sr Elizabeth Johnson, 2012
*Many Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas Day on or near January 7 to remember Jesus Christ’s birth, described in the Christian Bible. This date works to the Julian calendar that pre-dates the Gregorian calendar, which is commonly observed.