Opening Joke: What disease do you get when you eat Christmas tree ornaments? … Tinsel-itis.
As we discussed yesterday, Christmas is a twelve-day season, and it’s only the eleventh day. Merry Christmas! I wish that my birthday celebration lasted for twelve days, but I will acknowledge that Jesus may be a special case: Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing, et cetera, et cetera.
Christians around the world, along with many secular people as well, marked the significance of the Christmas holiday with the giving and receiving of gifts. Perhaps some of your households did the same, I know that mine did.
My true love absolutely overwhelmed me with presents this year. My true love has already given me 286 presents, and I expect another 78 of them tomorrow. In total, I received from her 364 presents – enough to open one package every day from now until next Christmas. Mind you, she had to get creative in order to come up with that many presents. Some of the gifts that my true love gave to me were artistic in nature, some were musical, some were funny, some were poultry. Each day, more and more. All of these presents were quite the sight – they were something even to sing about. One of my neighbor’s children stopped by just to count them all – over and over and over again.
It is good that I had all of these strange presents to count as I marked the Twelve Days of Christmas, because I’m not sure what else I would have done with this long season in the bleak midwinter. Christians throughout the ages have struggled with the same thing – what do we do with all of these days?
As far back as the fifth century, the Christian church has been tucking other holidays into the Twelve Days of Christmas. There is the Feast of Stephen, the New Testament’s first martyr, whose witness to his faith got him in trouble that was deep – deep and crisp and even. There is the Feast of St. John the Evangelist – though Christ was born that man no more may die, John was the only one of the original disciples who is not said to have been martyred for his faith. Then there is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the children who were killed in King Herod’s effort to snuff out Jesus’ ministry while it was still away in the manger.
Yet, in all of my efforts to prepare my remarks for this morning, I have not been able for you the answer to a seemingly simple question: Why do we have twelve days of Christmas? The answer seems to have been lost by the ghosts of Christmases past – even Wikipedia does not have it. So, rather than telling you about the history of the twelve days, I am left to talk with you about their present and their future.
The church calendar is designed to give us a season of preparation and then a season of celebration. In Advent, we trim the hearth and set the table. In Christmas, we join the shepherds in their songs of happy cheer, in the great brightness that they did see, and the glad tidings that they did hear.
The secular calendar flips it all around. Perhaps you have noticed that we no longer wait for the goose to get fat. We start our Christmas celebrations as soon as the Thanksgiving turkey has been made into soup. By the time we arrive on St. Stephen’s Day – the day after Christmas, the day that the English call Boxing Day since there is so much to be boxed up and put away – we are exhausted. We need the world in solemn stillness to lie for a few days so that we can catch our breath.
But, we have some agency here. Some choice. Some power to change the course of our future.
Fact: Jesus is born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King. Jesus is born in a specific place at a specific time. The Christmas story is not a literary construction, it is not a tale of yore. Christmas is the decision of an all-powerful God to insert himself into our real, tangible, everyday lives. God gathers together the hopes and fears of all the years in one specific person, the offspring of a virgin’s womb, in Royal David’s city, on one O Holy Night.
If we can let Christmas – and all of its confusing carols – just be Christmas, we will likely approach it differently than most. Christmas’ joy to the world can be that we receive 364 presents, or it can be the news that Earth receives her king, that every heart prepares him room.
Focusing on the presents will leave us wanting more. Focusing on God’s presence will make us grateful.