Preparing for the Twelve Days of Christmas

About a hundred years ago, the usual jolly G.K. Chesterton can be found lamenting two things that are still a problem today: First, that as a writer, he has to write about Christmas long before Christmas in order for it to be published at Christmas. Second, the rest of the world seems to celebrate Christmas long before Christmas and then when Christmas comes, everyone stops celebrating. Should be just the opposite.

Though we love Christmas for the traditions that it entails, we have forgotten one of the most important traditions. For several centuries people waited until Christmas to celebrate Christmas. And then they celebrated it for twelve days. There was a fast leading up to the feast, and then there were many days of feasting. But in recent years, in spite of official attempts to deflate Christmas altogether, the festival lasts for over a month leading up to the actual feast, and then it vanishes instantly and all evidence of it is erased.

Says Chesterton: “Modern men have a vague feeling that when they have come to the feast, they have come to the finish. By modern commercial customs, the preparations for it have been so very long and the practice of it seems so very short. This is, of course, in sharp contrast to the older traditional customs, in the days when it was a sacred festival for a simpler people. Then the preparation took the form of the more austere season of Advent and the fast of Christmas Eve. But when men passed on to the feast of Christmas it went on for a long time after the feast of Christmas Day. It always went on for a continuous holiday of rejoicing for at least twelve days.” It ended, he points out, in a wild culmination that was famously commemorated by a writer most of us have heard of: William Shakespeare. He wrote a play called Twelfth Night. And while most of us have heard of the play, most have forgotten the meaning of Twelfth Night. It is the twelfth day of Christmas. The last of a dozen days of great celebration, that begins with the birth of Christ and ends with the visit of the Wise Men.

Chesterton thinks that Twelfth Night is much more important than New Year’s Day. “While Progressives are already looking forward to the New Year, Christians should still be looking back to Christmas. It is all the difference between looking back with enthusiasm to something and looking forward with earnestness to nothing. People praise the future because it is blank and featureless; they are afraid of the past because it is full of real and living things.”

The modern world with its obsession for being modern, that is, up-to-date, is always at war with tradition, or what it perceives to be “out-of-date.” Its watchword is “change,” but the only change, says Chesterton, is on “the frothy and frivolous surface of society.” Underneath are the same issues, the same struggles, and the same ideas that all men have had to face, even if they try to avoid facing them. But even in our complex world they are reminded by the simple things of the permanent things. One of the simple things that remind them is “the prudence of the peasant on ordinary days and the festivity of the peasant on feast days.” The shepherds have always figured things out before the wise men.

Every ritual points to something beyond itself. Our Christmas figurines evoke actual people and a historical event. Our simple symbols point to an ultimate reality. Our “ritual rejoicings” are an attempt to express an unfathomable joy that even a chorus of angels could barely express. Unto us a Savior is born. There has never been better news and never a better reason to celebrate.

But we have to wait for it. We have to prepare for it. The one who prepared the way of the Lord did so by preaching repentance. Never has our world needed repentance more than it does now.

We should treat Advent as we should Lent. It should be a time of prayer and penance and preparation. And privation. Pray early and often. Hold off on the treats. Give things up. Give alms.

One form of penance, of course, is enduring the awful “holiday” music that blares out of the loudspeakers in every public place during the month of December. There is no escaping it. But then, when that music is finally and mercifully turned off, and when the rest of the world is taking down the decorations, our great celebration will just be beginning. And our music will be better, too.

Editor’s note: The image above entitled “Twelfth Night” was painted by Walter Howell Deverell in 1849-50.

Dale Ahlquist


Dale Ahlquist is the president and co-founder of the American Chesterton Society. He is the creator and host of the Eternal Word Television Network series, "G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense." Dale is the author of G.K. Chesterton: Apostle of Common Sense and the recently published The Complete Thinker. He is also the publisher of Gilbert Magazine, and associate editor of the Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius). He lives near Minneapolis with his wife and six children.

  • publiusnj

    One of my favorite points about Christmas that I like to share with those who hate (and/or fear) Christianity is that it is more important to the American consciousness than New Years, MLK Day, Presidents Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Hallloween and Thanksgiving combined. Black Friday now overshadows Thanksgiving even though it is no more than the purported ” official start” of the secular Christmas Season.

    Thus despite more than half a century of growing governmental opposition to Christmas on the basis of the anti-Christain interpretation of the First Amendment fostered by people like “Justice” Hugo Black (the old Ku Klux Klanner), all the governmental feasts put up against the Christian Calendar can’t even beat Christmas. Why is that? Because “you can’t beat something with nothing.” One of the necesssary corollaries of the anti-Christian understanding of the First Amendment is that if America won’t stand up for Christian Morality in the Name of the First Amendment, it cannot substitute anything but AMORALITY beause any other code of morality would equally be an establishment. Our national discourse has therefore become more and more amoral. Yet, the People of the United States recognize that one cannot put “the hopes and fears of all the Years” into Amorality. And so Christmas remains the resting place for those hopes (albeit at times corrupted by the commercial messages tha are the unfortunate response of the marketplace to the incredible power of Christmas). That is a source for hope that someday this growing national “amorality crusade (talk about oxymorons) will fall of its own weight as the Soviet Union did.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      It has always rather surprised me that the puritans did not abolish Christmas in the United States, as they did here in Scotland, by the Act of 1640

      “… the kirke within this kingdome is now purged of all superstitious observatione of dayes… thairfor the saidis estatis have dischairged and simply dischairges the foirsaid Yule vacance and all observation thairof in tymecomeing… and findis and declaires the samene to be extinct, voyd and of no force nor effect in tymecomeing.” It only became a public holiday again in 1958. That is why New Year (Hogmanay) became such an important celebration.

      The same thing happened in England, during the Commonwealth.

      • publiusnj

        Stiff-necked people those Scots and English authorities, but in the end they too are losing even though they too used the overwhelming force of law to declare themselves to be taking over Christ’s Church and subsituting their own wholly-owned principles/principals. Henry VIII, the Lairds of the Covenant, Elizabeth I, James VI/I, Oliver Cromwell and the continuing Dissenter (personified to an extent in Scrooge) and Scottish Kirk elements have always hated Christ’s Church. The non-royalist elements among them (who did not feel constrained by Tradition as the Royal Family did to justify its own position as head of the Church in England) have always seen Christmas and its traditional associations as a reproach to the counterfeit ecclesiologies they sought to foster.

        • Michael Paterson-Seymour

          “The non-royalist elements among them (who did not feel constrained by Tradition as the Royal Family did to justify its own position as head of the Church in England)” Hence James VI/I’s remark, “No bishop, no King” and the Covenanters’ slogan, “the Crown Rights of Christ.”

          Now it is precisely people like this, whose hopes for a “thorough godly reformation” were dashed by the Restoration of Charles II, who took themselves off to New England.

          • publiusnj

            Some perhaps, but Dissenters with substantial assets stayed in Britain and entered into all kinds of plots with the more militant Anglicans against the last two male Stuart kings regnant of Britain. For example, the regnant Campbell joined Monmouth’s rebellion in 1685 and invaded Scotland. Dissenters, such as Russell, then joined forces with militant Anglicans to form a fifth column in the successful invasion of England by the Dutch Army in 1688. And they were rewarded not just with Toleration (that was denied to Catholics for another 140 years) but with a continued special status for a “Reformed” Kirk in Scotland.

          • msmischief

            Eh, they had headed for Massachusetts before then. They didn’t like the English Civil War. All those English Puritans building a godly commonwealth without a glance over the Atlantic, to learn by example from their brethern who had been a-building for decades. Worse, those who looked often learned from the wrong people.

            (Massachusetts could achieve a much higher pitch of theocracy than England ever managed, by excluding dissenting immigration. Didn’t work perfectly, but still a much higher pitch.)

      • publiusnj

        One more point, the Colony of Massachusetts had not had a public observance of Christmas since Pilgrim Governor Bradford’s days in the Early 1620s. Then, in 1659, perrhaps in recognition of Richard Cromwell’s weakness and in anticipation of Charles II’s restoration, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a colonial law implementing the English Parliament’s 1647 Abolition of Christmas that punished Christmas celebrants with a five shilling fine. Even after the English Parliament repealed the ban on Christmas, the praxis in Boston was for Christmas to be another day of work throughout the Eighteenth Century. Thereafter, Christ’s Irish people themselves resettled Massachusetts in mass and swamped the anti-Christmas opposition. So today, even in the former Puritan Stronghold of Boston, Christ’s Birth is celebrated on the same day as the rest of the Western Christian World celebrates it despite the best efforts of the Dissenter Establishment to suppress it.

      • me

        Oh well, I don’t know about you, but after 8 years or so in the US I feel that my American friends think Thanksgiving IS the major holiday of the year, and not Christmas. They fly all over the US to meet their families during Thanksgiving, not Christmas. So in a sense the puritans were successful in substituting one by the other.

        Strangely enough, because there’s no Thanksgiving in England, they do celebrate Christmas much more intensely than here in the US.

        • me

          By the way, I’m not even going to talk about THE major Catholic holiday that is Easter, which we don’t even get a day off from work (a complete ABSURD in my opinion not to get Passion Friday off). In Anglican England we do get the Friday AND Monday off. So yes, the puritans have kind of ruined the religious feeling in this country.

    • John O’Neill

      At Christmas we celebrate Christ as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Next to that appellation the title of president of the American State or other pretenders to the throne are mere pipsqueaks and all the holidays they invent are just empty gestures to American nothingness.

  • hombre111

    To begin with, we are a future oriented people. We love to anticipate, but not how to savor. And, as a society of mad merchants, it is not really about Christmas, but about money. That is why Pope Francis the non-Marxist criticizes capitalism, which reduces everything to money.

    • Art Deco

      That is why Pope Francis the non-Marxist criticizes capitalism, which reduces everything to money.

      And you reduce everything to silly talking points.

  • poetcomic1

    12 days instead of one for lonely, isolated people to contemplate suicide. Hmmm,… I don’t know.

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