The First Days of Christmas
Embracing Christmastide Beyond a Single Day
For as long as I can remember, my family has made it a tradition to visit Butchart Gardens during Advent or Christmastide. This year, the weather was unseasonably warm. Julia could still feel her toes by the end of the night—a Christmas miracle! The added touch of fog lent a magical atmosphere to the radiant lights. For those unfamiliar, Butchart Gardens embraces the Christmas season with an extravagant light display, featuring scenes that bring to life the carol The Twelve Days of Christmas. This carol often sparks discussions between Julia and me about how we could do more to embrace Christmastide celebrations. Because Gabe Huck’s words resonate, “We take our Christmas with lots of sugar. And we take it in a day.”
Our energy, it seems, is predominantly spent during Advent. We put considerable effort into crafting our Advent calendar, a tradition initiated by Julia. Brown paper bags adorn the living room wall, each containing a treat, a prayer, and a surprise (like bringing out a Christmas-themed book or watching a festive movie). Decorating our home, purchasing presents, attending Advent concerts, piano recitals, and church events—all part of the seasonal hustle and bustle.
Then, Christmas Day arrives—a moment of stillness. The evening comes, dawn ascends, and life goes on.
How can we fully embrace Christmastide as a season rather than something tackled in a single day? As I’ve said, when Julia and I ponder this question, it’s The Twelve Days of Christmas that fuels our imagination. The idea of spreading our gift-giving joy over the entire Christmastide season is appealing to some degree. But how do you do? “Hey kids, how about just one present a day?” That’s a tough sell! It’s also more presents than we give. The prospect of more gifts poses the risk of fostering consumerism. How can we redirect their hearts away from greed?
Christmastide and Darkness
Fortunately, the Church Calendar takes a different approach to Christmastide than this popular carol. It designates a twelve-day season of celebration where gifts are undoubtedly appropriate. However, there’s more to it than just exchanging presents.
On Christmas Day, we reflect on the profound truth that the Word was made flesh, that eternity entered into time, and time is now caught up in eternity. A sense of awe envelops us as we contemplate the luminous light of God in the manger. As the gospel of John eloquently puts it, “In [Christ] was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
The following three days of Christmas are marked by feasts: The feast of Saint Stephen, the feast of Saint John, and the commemoration of the Holy Innocents. These feasts deviate from the conventional framing of Christmastide through the lens of The Twelve Days of Christmas. Yet, if light shines in the darkness, we must confront the dark.
The feast of St. Stephen commemorates the first martyr of the church. The feast of St. John recalls the apostle exiled on the island of Patmos. The commemoration of the Holy Innocents remembers the infant boys slaughtered in Bethlehem at Herod’s vain command—an attempt to murder the infant Jesus.
I have been rereading Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God by Bobby Gross. In his reflections about Christmastide, he points out that these three feast days correspond to three kinds of martyrdom: voluntary and executed (Stephen), voluntary but not executed (John), and executed but not voluntary (the Bethlehem children). Gross explains:
To remember Herod’s atrocity is to strip sentimentality from the birth of Christ. On this day we confront the evil in our world, the violence of the powerful against the weak, the sorrow of those who suffer injustice and the very real darkness into which the light shines …. The darkness into which Christ came is no mere metaphor. Nor is the darkness of our time. Then again, the light of Christ is no mere metaphor either!
These initial days of Christmastide beckon us to remember that the manger leads to a cross, the faithful share in the sufferings of Christ, and that the still ‘silent night’ of Christ’s birth was not without the fulfilment of what the prophet Jeremiah foretold:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
Christmas is not an escape from the dark. It is a time to reorient how we dwell in darkness.
Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room
On November 5th, our church intentionally made time for the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. It made an impression on our kids. They have not stopped praying for the persecuted church since. It seems any whiff of tragedy makes a lasting impression on their little hearts. They’re not yet hardened by the onslaught of all that is wrong in the world. So, if you hung out with us during our evening prayer before bedtime, you would hear these common prayer requests from Ansley and Maggie (offered by their own volition):
For the persecuted church
For the conflicts between Ukraine/Russia and Israel/Palestine
For wars to cease
For no more violence or guns
For everyone in the world to have a good day tomorrow
Almost every evening, from the mouths of babes, arises the universal longing for light to pierce the cloak of darkness shrouding our world. These prayers, it turns out, are well-suited for Christmastide.
As I contemplate how I can immerse my children more fully in Christmastide, and how to engage more deeply myself, I’m struck by how the Lord has already been preparing our hearts. In Joy to the World, we sing, “Let every heart prepare him room.” This is a central theme of Advent—preparing room in our hearts for Christ to dwell, for the light to illuminate our souls. But Advent and Christmastide help us see how the light is already shining too. My children already see the darkness of the world. They already pray for the light to shine brighter still. They already know the hope of Christ dwelling among us. Two turtle doves? Three French hens? Four calling birds? No gift given on the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th day of Christmas could possibly parallel the gift of the true light shining in our darkness—the hope given to us in darkness, because God has been born into our world.
There is much more to Christmastide than the first four days, and for those seeking a deeper understanding, I recommend Bobby Gross’s Living the Christian Year. The reminders of darkness and the feasts that compel us to look at what we’d rather conceal with sparkle and gifts—they help us see that the gift already given is the gift that keeps giving. We simply prepare our hearts to receive him. During these initial days of Christmastide, all I can do is celebrate how the gift of Christ is richly dwelling in our home—and for that, I am grateful.
May the light shining in the darkness shine brighter still—in the darkness you’re well acquainted with, in my darkness, in the darkest nights of our world.