28 November 2009

The 12 Days of Christmas (not the Song)

Ever wonder what the Twelve Days of Christmas was about? Did you just think it was a very bizarre Christmas Carol?

Nope, it's a very real event and it takes place from Christmas Day to Epiphany (the 6th of January). The feast of Epiphany is also known as Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night also signified the end of the feasting season that began on Halloween in Tudor times. Twelfth Night was the time when the world was turned crazy. On this day the King and all those who were high would become the peasants and vice versa. This feast was governed by the Lord of Misrule. Epiphany is seeing a comeback in the US because of Latino culture where it is known as el Dia de los Reyes Magos or Three Kings Day.

There is a question as to whether the twelve days of Christmas has fallen victim to the secularisation of society or to the Puritans. Either way, it is a custom that is pretty much forgotten in the US. British culture celebrates Boxing Day (26 December or St. Stephen's Day) which is a national holiday in many Commonwealth nations. The Anglican Church and liturgical Calendar still has the verious feasts such as Childermas (the Feast of the Innocents) and Epiphany.

On the other hand, the traditions of the Twelve Days were adapted from the older pagan customs, in particular Saturnalia. The holiday falls firmly on the Winter Solstice in the Northern hemisphere. Many cultures in the Northern Hemisphere have performed solstice ceremonies since pre-historic times. At their root: an ancient fear that the failing light would never return unless humans intervened with anxious vigil or antic celebration. The Twelfth Night traditions of the Solstice also have an influence on modern day pantomime where traditional authority is mocked and the principal male lead is played by a woman, while the leading older female character, or 'Dame', is played by a man. It is this pagan influence and revelling that offended the puritans and led to them banning Christmas.

The Song "Carol of the Bells" is the Ukrainian carol called "Shchedryk". The word "Shchedryk" means the "Generous One". It refers to the god of generosity, the Dazh Boh - the Giver God, which is the sun. Dazh Boh's feast was on the winter solstice; after all, that is when he started his return. With the coming of Christianity to Ukraine in 988, the people did not forget their ancient customs; they incorporated them into their new beliefs. To this day Ukrainians sing the "Shchedryk" during Christmas season.

But the 12 Days of Christmas can be either sacred or profane depending on your outlook and personality. Does one choose the holiday of the Romans or that of the High Church Anglican? Either way, it is a holiday which is firmly engrained in the Northern Cultures. It is a holiday that does not stop the day after Christmas, but continues until the Sun is revived.