By John Rieping | 27 December 2015 |
'That special time of the year has arrived when people gather around and pass on fantastic tales about Christmas. I refer, of course, to the modern myth that the 12 days of Christmas are just a continuation of pagan Nordic "Yule" time.
Dangerously, I was asked to research it myself. So I did, and I do like to share with others, especially around the holidays.
A modern pagan Yule would be Dec. 20th to Jan. 1st. Those aren't the same dates as the traditional "12 days of Christmas" (evening Dec. 24 to evening Jan. 5), a period that actually adds up to 12 or 13 days, depending on how you count it up. That time for Christmas was defined by a council of Christian bishops in the city of Tours in A.D. 567, though originally the middle three of those days were for fasting -- not feasting. (The Christian holy day of Christmas itself began at least two centuries earlier. According to 4th century Patriarch John Chrysostom of Constantinople, Dec. 25 was believed to be the birthday of the messiah based on Roman records and tradition.)
In comparison, the ancient nordic Yule lasted only three days or less. The length was for as long as the alcohol they were drinking didn't run out. It began on a slaughter night of ritual animal sacrifice.
The medieval and modern version of Yule became 12 days in imitation of the traditional Christmas celebration, arguably beginning with King Haakon of Norway (920-961). The king converted to Christianity and made a law that from henceforth his pagan subjects would have to celebrate their Yule at the same time as the Christians celebrated their Christmas “and at that time everyone was to have ale for the celebration with a measure of grain, or else pay fines." (I guess he didn't approve of drinking on an empty stomach.)
Though Orthodox Christians and some Protestants still observe the traditional 12 days, Roman Catholics no longer officially do so. Since 1969, their Christmas season ends on a Sunday celebrating the baptism of Jesus, which is a few Sundays after Christmas. Because of that, the length of their Christmas differs each year. This year (2015), their Christmas season is 17 days long.
Meanwhile some Catholic countries in western Europe and Latin America celebrate Christmas for 40 days, a practice that began in the middle ages.
So why did Catholics change the official ending of their Christmas season? Ancient tradition long carried on by our Orthodox Christian siblings in faith.
For Orthodox Christians, Christmas falls on Jan. 7 on western calendars but Dec. 25 on their own, and it isn’t traditionally the biggest holiday of this time of year. More important is the day that Yeshua (Jesus) was revealed as divine during his baptism in the Jordan River, a day of Theophany. A holy day in January celebrating that event ends the Christmas season for Orthodox Christians, as well as now for Catholics. Christians have been celebrating that baptismal feast day since before the Christmas holiday itself existed.
I thought all of this might be interesting to others, whether your Christmas lasts one day, 12 days, many more, or none at all. Either way, may love find a home in your heart, and may that home have an open door for others to enter in as well.