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On the fifth day of Christmas

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The 12 days of Christmas is not just a catchy song

The Martyrdom of Saint Stephen by Peter Paul Rubens, oil on canvas 1616-1617 (Photo Public Domain)

The Martyrdom of Saint Stephen by Peter Paul Rubens, oil on canvas 1616-1617
(Photo Public Domain)

For many, Christmas is a feast of lavishly decorated trees, gifts wrapped in shiny green or red paper and snow and tinsel. However, for millions of Christians around the world it is one of the most important religious holidays of the year. And even if 25 December has come and gone, the celebrations of Christmas are in no way over because there are actually 12 days of Christmas.

This is not an article on the Christmas song where a person keeps sending a gift to their loved one for each day of Christmas. Although the song itself has an interesting history; it originated from an old English Christmas carol believed to have been created during the 1700s, this article is devoted to the actual festivities of the 12 days in churches in Egypt and around the world.

Contrary to popular belief, the 12 days of Christmas do not lead up to 25 December, but actually begin on Christmas day. However, not all Christian faiths start their count on the same day; some consider 25 December as Christmas day while for others it falls on the 26th. Generally in Western tradition, the first day of Christmas starts with the birth of Christ on 25 December and the 12 days end with Twelfth Night on 5 January, although in some churches festivities continue until the twelfth day on 6 January. This day is followed by the day of Epiphany, which celebrates the arrival of the Three Wise Men or Kings at the stable with gifts for Jesus Christ. In Eastern Christian tradition Christmas day falls on 7 January, and the day of Epiphany falls on 19 January.

Because of the differences between both Eastern and Western Christian traditions, and the variety of churches that exist, many different saints and important events in the different branches of Christianity are remembered and celebrated in these 12 days of Christmas. For the sake of this article, we have chosen to mention saints and martyrs from different branches of Western Christian tradition.

Each day of the 11 days following the birth of Christ marks a celebration of a saint or an event related to Christmas. The second day honours Saint Stephen, the first martyr for Christianity who is mentioned in the Bible. The third day celebrates John the Evangelist, who was one of Christ’s 12 Apostles. The fourth day observes the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which honours the children massacred by Herod the Great who had been told that among the newborns on 25 December a child was born who would replace him as king of the Jews.

The fifth day is dedicated to Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered by King Henry the Second in a conflict over the rights of the church. The sixth day is usually the feast of the Holy Family, which could either fall on the Sunday following Christmas, or-unless the first Sunday is 1 January- on 30 December or the sixth day. The seventh day marks the end of the year and also honours Saint Sylvester who he was buried in the Catacomb of Priscilla on 31 December.

The eighth day celebrates the Holy Virgin Mary and it also is believed it was the day of the circumcision of Jesus.  On the ninth day, Gregory of Nazianzus, who was the Archbishop of Constantinople during the fourth century, is honoured. On the tenth day ,it is the feast of the Most Holy Name of Jesus. The eleventh day marks the death of the first American saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. The twelfth day honours more than one saint including Saint John Neumann, Saint Julian the Hospitaller and Saint Edward the Confessor.

In short, over the next few weeks our Christian friends and colleagues will be celebrating and remembering many important religious figures. And even if the 12 days of Christmas song seems to have very little to do with religion, it has been said that the song was originally created to help children learn the principals of their faith.


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