The Twelve Days of Christmas

nativity-200Orthodox Christians need to remain faithful to their traditions.

In the Christian tradition of both east and west, the twelve days of Christmas refer to the period from Christmas Day to Theophany. The days leading up to Christmas were for preparation; a practice affirmed in the Orthodox tradition by the Christmas fast that runs from November 15 to Christmas day. The celebration of Christmas did not begin until the first of the twelve days.

As our culture became more commercialized, the period of celebration shifted from Thanksgiving to Christmas Day. Christmas celebration increasingly conforms to the shopping cycle while the older tradition falls by the wayside. It’s an worrisome shift because as the tradition dims, the knowledge that the period of preparation imparted diminishes with it.

Our Orthodox traditions — from fasting cycles to worship –exist to teach us how to live in Christ. The traditions impart discipline. These disciplines are never an end in themselves but neither can life in Christ be sustained apart from them.

The traditions only make sense only when they have the Gospel as their reference. If we forget that these traditions are given to us to help us lay hold of Christ, then they appear to be superfluous and the disciplines they encourage us to do seem to serve no real purpose. We start to evaluate the discipline by the values of the dominant culture — by a cost-benefit calculus, rather than seeing them as ways to morally reorient ourselves towards Christ.

Instead of preparing for the birth of Christ through inward reorientation, we follow the direction of the dominant culture and skip any preparation altogether. We party instead of fast. We get caught up in the commercial energy of the season rather than wait on the Spirit of God.

It’s a dangerous path. Our culture is becoming increasingly secularized; the sacred dimension of creation is slipping from view. This loss of this sacred sensibility has grave ramifications for society that are expressed in many different ways such as the vulgarization of popular culture or the reduction of an unborn child to a commodity. If this view prevails our culture will inevitably view man as nothing more than an animal or a machine.

But man is more than an animal or a machine. The scriptures reveal man is created in the image and likeness of God, a phrase that means that man is not complete unless he partakes of God — God must be part of man’s life. This longing — this innate knowledge that man is created for God — never leaves man although a person can bury it if he so chooses.

A secularized mind is blind to the inherent holiness of life. Maintaining our traditions is one way to avoid this debilitating malady. Christmas is not just “Jesus’ birthday” (an impoverished notion heard more and more even among Orthodox faithful), but much more.

The birth of Christ and His baptism ought never to be divorced. Both events define the Christmas season. It imparts to the Christian the knowledge that Christ’s coming into the world and Christ’s sanctification of the waters makes our new life possible — a sonship by adoption accomplished through baptism.

When the link between Christmas and Theophany is broken (and by neglecting the proper preparation we break it), the cultural memory of the promise of new birth expresses itself in weakened and ultimately insufficient cultural forms. These forms function as a new tradition.

Religion is not the product of culture; religion is the source, writes philosopher Russell Kirk. “It’s from an association in a cult, abody of worshipers, that human community grows…when belief in the cult has been wretchedly enfeebled, the culture will decay swiftly. The material order restson the spiritual order.”*

Orthodox Christianity can contribute to the recovery of the moral foundation of American culture by imparting knowledge that can strengthen and deepen that foundation. It won’t happen however, if the Orthodox faithful adopt the practices of the dominant culture in place of their own tradition.

*Russell Kirk “Civilization with Religion” The Heritage Foundation Report (July 24, 1992).

Copyright © 2005 Johannes L. Jacobse. Rev. Jacobse is a priest in the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

This article was published in “The Hellenic Voice,” January 7, 2003.


  1. Michael Bauman :

    We approach the feast as our people are facing many changes and challenges in a world that is departing increasingly from traditional concepts, making violence, consumption and possession a new law for this life. Needless to say, the luxury with which we celebrate this feast, the feast of the poverty of Bethlehem, is a clear sign that we, also, have adopted this law in the conduct of our lives. As we are accustomed to exchange gifts in the manner of the kings who visited the Lord Jesus at His birth, let us express our love to the Divine Child, coming to us, by feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, offering a shelter to the homeless and doing whatever we can do.

    These are words from the newly elected Patriarch of Antioch in his Pastoral Nativity letter. The full text can be found here:

  2. “Instead of preparing for the birth of Christ through inward reorientation, we follow the direction of the dominant culture and skip any preparation altogether. We party instead of fast. We get caught up in the commercial energy of the season rather than wait on the Spirit of God.” This sums up pretty much everything that has been going through my mind this Christmas season.

    Looking at all the people rummaging through stores to buy expensive gifts and the long lines at grocery stores saddens me. Little by little the holiness of the season is being replaced by secularism; it’s real essence being overpowered by the materialism. How many people are actually celebrating Christmas for the right reasons? How many are preparing a feast in honor of Jesus’ birth and sacrifice?

    It is my prayer that Christians all over the world do not succumb to the evils of the world and forget God’s great love this Christmas season.

  3. Alyosha Apple :

    Wow! How powerful and true. Reading this beautiful article gave me moment for pause.

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