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Do you have a burning question about church, Episcopal/Anglican traditions, theology, and so on? In our weekly feature "Ask Dear Old Dad," after the classic "Dear Abby" format, the Rev. Reese Riley, COS Senior Adjunct Clergy, will tackle your questions with his signature wisdom and charm. And by the way, there are no dumb questions! You may request to be anonymous, or you may have your name published. Your questions will inspire the conversation!

Dear DOD,

So, DOD, what’s with these Twelve Days of Christmas?

Curiously yours,

Virginia V.


Dear Virginia,

Yes, there is a strong tradition of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

My wife and I attempted to do the Twelve Days of Christmas gift-giving back in 1975. We had a roommate, Steve, who was a Vietnam veteran suffering PTSD. We had taken him in as a temporary roommate while he was in transition to more permanent housing. So, we agreed together to have a rotation of gifts: one of us would buy a single gift and we would rotate who got a gift from whom daily for the 12 days. It was a disaster. While we were smart enough to limit the spending to under $5 per gift, it is sobering to realize that those $5 now would be pushing $30. Not only was it expensive, it was stressful to keep figuring out little gifts for all 12 days. Our household never did this again.

If you were to follow the gift-giving of the Christmas song The Twelve Days of Christmas, you would end up with 364 gifts. To buy all those partridges, pear trees, etc. in today’s money is $201,345. Astonishing.

The ancient Romans held a popular festival at years end called Saturnalia, which had two functions:

  1. To persuade Saturn, the god of agriculture, to provide a fecund harvest in all things from grain to children

  2. It added five days to the Roman calendar of twelve months of thirty days each, completing the needed 365 days

The Twelve Days of Christmas is the Christian adaptation of the Roman Saturnalia, overlaid with the birth narrative of Jesus and the arrival of the Three Kings.

The Roman Christian Church celebrated the Birth of Jesus on December 25 and the arrival of the Three Kings on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. The twelve days span from December 25 to Twelfth Night, Epiphany Eve, on January 5. In between fall the feasts of Saint Stephen, deacon and martyr; Saint John, Apostle and evangelist; the Holy Innocents (marking Herod’s slaughter of young children in an attempt to destroy Jesus); and the Holy Name (marking the day of Jesus’ circumcision, on which he was officially given his name).

Today, I suggest that honoring the Twelve Days might include keeping indoor and outdoor decorations with lights on and lighting candles for the evening meal. On Twelfth Night, in some parts of the world, communities gather with their now-dried Christmas greens and have a wonderful bonfire with those greens. (I merely take a very small branch and burn it in my fireplace.)

To me, the Twelve Days traditions are an antidote to the over-commercialization of a wonderful Christian Holy Day.


Dear Old Dad (DOD)

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