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Today Is Officially the End of Christmas – A History of the 12-Day Christian Celebration of Christ’s Birth

Most people are familiar with the 12 Days of Christmas thanks to the song of the same name, where the narrator describes receiving an assortment of gifts throughout the Yuletide season.

But to many, the actual meaning behind the song is lost.

Today in the U.S., the Christmas season starts around Thanksgiving and suddenly concludes right on Dec. 26. Then the new year comes, and all the merrymaking is over.

However for many Christians all around the world, the Christmas season starts on Dec. 25, the date that commemorates the birth of Jesus. Celebrations continue through Jan. 5 with the “Twelfth Night.”

Indeed, the famous Shakespearean play by this name takes place on this night.

Festivities conclude on Jan. 6 with the feast of the Epiphany.

Also known as “Three Kings Day,” this holiday celebrates the visit of the Magi, or wise men, to the baby Jesus and later the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.

The Gospel of Matthew chronicles how the Magi traveled across the desert, guided by a star leading them to the Christ. There, they presented him with three gifts — gold to recognize his royal standing as King of the Jews, frankincense to acknowledge Christ’s divinity, and myrrh for his mortality, according to The U.K. Sun.

Traditions around the world include baking “king cakes,” which contain a figurine of the baby Jesus or a bean-baked inside, leaving out boots and stockings overnight to be filled with gifts, and feasting.

Other notable dates between Dec. 25 and Jan. 5 include the feast of Saint Stephen on Dec. 26, traditionally used for giving leftovers to the poor. On Dec. 28 is the feast of the Holy Innocents, which recognizes the children who were murdered by King Herod, according to Christianity Today.

Although celebrations of the Epiphany remain popular around the world within many denominations (including Catholicism, the Eastern Orthodox churches and the Anglican Communion — which includes the Episcopal church in North America, Lutherans and Methodists), its popularity — like many early Christian traditions — has waned across the U.S.

The ways American Christians traditionally celebrate many notable dates throughout the history of Christianity, like Christmas trees and Easter eggs, have their origins in pagan traditions, which were revised with Christian intentions by the early church in Europe, according to many scholars.

Due to that, many church reformers believed that such traditions should be left behind.

Although Christmas continued to be celebrated by Lutherans and the Church of England, strict Puritans did away the holiday during the colonial era.

Still, writings from Captain John Smith indicate that Christmas was celebrated in Jamestown, according to TheHistoryof Christmas.com.

However, Christmas was apparently banned in Boston during the 17th century.

Historian Cokie Roberts said recently during an interview with NPR that George Washington crossed the Delaware River on Christmas Day because he knew the Hessians would be celebrating the holiday.

After the American Revolution, English traditions — including Christmas — are said to have fallen out of favor.

Christmas in America had somewhat of a slow revival beginning with Washington Irving’s “The Night Before Christmas” in the early 1800s, according to Roberts.

Congress actually used to meet on Christmas, and it wasn’t until 1870 that Christmas was recognized as a national holiday. By that time, many states had begun to recognize the day.

With the spread of various forms of Protestantism across much of the U.S., many feasts of the liturgical year used by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran and Methodist churches are not observed.

However, events like Epiphany appear to be making somewhat of a comeback in certain churches, according to Baptist News.

“If you ask 10 people on Sunday, many of them will not know what you are talking about with Epiphany,” said Steven Meriwether, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. “So I don’t use that language a lot.”

According to the online magazine, the pastor is a fan of certain aspects of the liturgical calendar and has introduced some concepts to his church.

“With Epiphany, I don’t weight it like I weight Ash Wednesday, Easter or the four Sundays of Advent,” Meriwether said.

“If I am going to push for this in a Baptist context, I am going to push for Lent or Advent.”

“There are deep biblical roots for marking time in relationship to one’s awareness of God at work in the world,” asserted Richard Wilson, a professor of Christian theology at Mercer University.

“My sense is that it’s probably a result of the maturing of the ecumenical movement, in which many non-liturgical churches became familiar with the liturgy and decided to see what it was about.”

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Written by Leigh Brown

Leigh Brown is a former CIA counter-terrorism specialist and military intelligence officer who served nineteen years overseas in Turkey, Italy, Germany, and Spain. He was the CIA Chief of Base for the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 and was one of the first Americans to enter Afghanistan in December 2001. Leigh is Executive Director of the Council for the National Interest, a Washington-based advocacy group that seeks to encourage and promote a U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East that is consistent with American values and interests.

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