Our ideas about the 12 days of Christmas may be innocuously incorrect.
For years my views on the 12 days of Christmas were shaped by a Christmas song that is, though entertaining, something of a marathon to sing. One year I even planned my Christmas giving based on popular views of the 12 days of Christmas. I gave 12 gifts to my wife, one for each day of Christmas, beginning with Dec. 14 (the supposed first day of Christmas) and ending on Christmas Day, the supposed 12th day of Christmas.
My error, though innocuous, meant that I missed out on understanding some beautiful insights about the real dates and the potential origins of the 12 days of Christmas.
So when are the 12 days of Christmas? Many of the insights that follow are drawn from the article “How December 25 Became Christmas," by Andrew McGowan.
The 12 days of Christmas begin on Christmas Day, Dec. 25, and end on Jan. 6.
That Jan. 6 date may seem random to many of us. If so, this may suggest that we are more familiar with Western Christianity than Eastern Christianity. To make a gross generalization, Western Christianity follows the traditions of the Christian Church based in Rome, including the Roman Catholic calendar of religious holy days. Making another gross generalization, Eastern Christianity follows the Byzantine or Eastern Orthodox traditions, including their dates for religious holy days, such as Christmas, Easter, etc.
Christmas Day in Western Christianity is set on Dec. 25. Eastern Christianity celebrates Christmas on Jan. 6.
The answer to why the dates are different can be found through the scriptures and understanding a bit of religious history to provide us some orienting context.
Most of what we know of the life of Jesus Christ is found in the four New Testament Gospels. For all the celebration and thought we put into the birth of Jesus Christ, only two of the Four Gospels even mention Jesus’ birth (Matthew and Luke). Instead of focusing on the birth of Jesus, the Gospels pour most of their concentrated effort into remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus. Indeed, of 89 chapters in the New Testament Gospels, only three are devoted to the birth of Jesus Christ.
On the other hand, 29 chapters (nearly one-third of the New Testament Gospels) are devoted to the last week of Jesus' life, including his resurrection. Pauline writings, which traditionally constitute 99 of 259 total New Testament chapters, make no mention of the birth of Jesus Christ.
The crucifixion of Jesus was far more important to early Christians than his birth.
Jesus' death and resurrection combined to make the single most important event in the history of the world. Without the death and resurrection of Jesus, the entire plan of salvation would have been frustrated and we would be consigned to an eternity of oblivion.
The New Testament writers (especially the Gospel writers) were aware of the significant events surrounding the death of Jesus. These writers provided calendrical clues to help identify these dates. For example, we know that Jesus died on or near the Passover celebration.
As Christianity developed, specific dates were assigned to the death of Jesus. Western Christianity identified March 25 as the date when Jesus died. Eastern Christianity determined the crucifixion to have occurred April 6.
Because so little was known about the birthday of Jesus and because early Christians were prone to see significant events happening on significant dates, the tradition arose that Jesus was conceived on the same day of the year (e.g., April 6) on which he died, but not the same year, obviously.
Therefore, according to Western Christianity, Jesus was conceived March 25. And Eastern Christians identified April 6 as the date of Jesus' conception.
And this become relevant to Christmas and the 12 days of Christmas.
Calculating the nine months of gestation from conception to the birth of Jesus provides the date of Dec. 25 for Western Christians and Jan. 6 for Eastern Christians. Hence, the 12 days of Christmas establish the date boundaries for when Western and Eastern Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus.
Those 12 days have little to do with swans a-swimming or maids a-milking, but very much to do with remembering the most important gifts we receive from the one who truly loves us.
Taylor Halverson (Ph.D., biblical studies, instructional tech) is a BYU teaching & learning consultant; founder of Creativity, Innovation & Design Group; and travel leader to Mesoamerica and Middle East. Taylorhalverson.com. His views are his own.