On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me … you know how the song goes.
But more than just lyrics about turtledoves and partridges, the 12 days of Christmas is a tradition observed by many Christians. Christmas is just the beginning of a 12-day celebration, according to liturgical tradition.
Bishop Chandler Jones of St. Barnabas Anglican Church in Dunwoody said there are several feast days that are observed between Christmas and Epiphany, when some Christians believe the three wise men visited the newborn Jesus.
“You have these wonderful feast days that come right after Christmas. Dec. 25 is just the start,” Jones said. “In the Anglican tradition, the twelfth night is marked by great celebrations and food.”
Included in the 12 days of Christmas are the Feast of Saint Stephen on Dec. 26; the feast of Saint John on Dec. 27; and the feast of the Holy Innocents on Dec. 28. Jones said the Anglican tradition is to take Eucharist, or Holy Communion, to mark each occasion.
“There’s a lot of rich history and rich symbolism in all of that,” Jones said.
The Rev. Zachary Thompson of Holy Innocents Episcopal Church in Sandy Springs said his church will hold mass each of those days and include a sermon that explores the saints that are honored for each feast.
“We have a slew of saints we recognize during the season,” Thompson said. “Particularly important for us is the feast day of the Holy Innocents.”
Thompson said because it is their namesake, the church puts particular emphasis on the feast of Holy Innocents, and holds a memorial service for the children that have died in Georgia throughout the year.
This year, he said, they plan to delay the service until January and hold a larger, community-wide event that will serve as a memorial for the children killed in the shooting in Newtown, Conn.
Jones said that in the past the majority of Christians observed the 12 days of Christmas. But now, only a few denominations uphold the tradition.
“The reason why it went out of vogue was because people, especially in retail, wanted to get people excited for Dec. 25 and wanted to sell their goods as Christmas presents,” Jones said. “Economically, there was a great deal of stress on buying Christmas presents. The 12 days of Christmas became somewhat of an afterthought because the focus was on Dec. 25.”
Thompson said aside from celebrations at the church, Holy Innocents encourages families in their congregation to recognize the 12 days of Christmas in their homes, too.
“Each year we give a sort of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany pamphlet,” he said.
Included are prayer services for lighting the Christmas tree and other prayers using material things to “connect our homes and families into God’s story.”