Blog #319 – The Twelve Days of Christmas and Good King Wenceslas

The “Twelve Days of Christmas” is mostly known in these modern times because of the popularity of the song of that name. But what are they and when do they take place? In western churches, such as our Canadian Baptist denominations, Christmas Day is actually considered to be the first day of Christmas with the 12 days stretching through to their conclusion on January 5th. To be honest, there are some traditions that have the 12 days as running from December 26th to January 6th. In any case, whatever tradition is followed, the 12 days do not start until the birth of Jesus has been observed. The season before them is “Advent”, the season of the advent, or coming, of our Lord.

With commercialism taking hold in the 20th, the significance of the 12 Days of Christmas has nearly disappeared as the focus is now upon present-giving and spend, spend, spend until the presents are opened on Christmas Day (at the latest). What used to be widely known as “Advent” is now called “The Christmas Season” and it is now primarily a season for shopping and parties. In 567 A.D., the Council of Tours proclaimed the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany (traditionally January 6th) to be “a sacred and festive season” and established that the season of Advent before Christmas Day was to be one of fasting “in preparation for the feast”. That is why in many cultures, at midnight on Christmas Eve/Christmas Day, there huge banquets/meals are served. The following 12 days of Christmas are “fast free” and thus much food is consumed in that time.

However, December 26th (which we call “Boxing Day”) was and is in many Christian traditions known as the “Feast of St. Stephen” (and, celebrated as a national holiday in countries such as Ireland). On this day, a person was and is expected to “give alms to the poor”. In other words, it was a day of generosity and giving. Named in honour of Stephen, the first Christian martyr who gave of his life for the sake of others, Christians are expected to be generous in their giving on this day. So, in closing, we will simply put down the words to the old hymn, “Good King Wenceslas”, a Christmas carol that tells the story of a Bohemian king who goes on a journey, braving harsh winter weather, to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen. During the journey, his helper (called a “page”) is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather but is enabled to continue by following the king’s footprints, step for step, through the deep snow. The legend is based on the life of the historical King Wenceslaus of Bohemia (907-935 A.D.). The lyrics were written in 1853 by English hymnwriter John Mason Neale and the melody was set to a 13th century carol.

Good King Wences’las looked out on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel.

“Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou know’st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain;
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I shall see him dine, when we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together;
Through the rude wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.

“Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.

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