Keeping Christmas: Bringing the Gift of Christ Home in Our Hearts

A Guide to the 12 Days: Celebrate the Joy of the Incarnation

The Nativity is the heart of Christmas décor at the Spencer house.
The Nativity is the heart of Christmas décor at the Spencer house. (photo: Courtesy of Susanna Spencer)

’Twas the 12th night of Christmas, and I looked about the house as carols I had been listening to since Dec. 25 danced through my head. The children were all blessed and reading in bed, while my husband and I prepared for Epiphany morning. The Advent wreath was still the centerpiece of the dining room table, red candles having replaced the violet and rose. We had continued to light the four candles every evening with our dinner. The wreath with the purple ribbon on the front door had been replaced with a Christmas one. The Jesse Tree glowed with its own lights near the glittering Christmas tree. And in the crèche, nestled in the manger, lay the tiny rendition of the Infant Jesus, with a small crucifix behind the manger to remind us of why he became a man.

I moved across the room to the Three Wise Men, who had been gradually “moved” toward the manger over the past 12 days, giving them a lift to their spot beside the Lord. Sheep, ox, donkey and camel crowded in with the human figurines, a place I often went to in my imagination in prayer during Christmastide. 

In the glow of the tree, my husband came into the room bearing a set of three small wrapped gifts for each of the children, to represent the three gifts brought to Jesus by the Wise Men. 

Then we retreated to the couch to enjoy the scene, one that always fills me with that Christmas feeling—one that I am inclined to describe as “grace-filled,” for each of these things we do during these Twelve Days of Christmas bring our worship at Mass into our home, making the Incarnation a more concrete part of our lives.

Benedictine Dom Gaspar Lefebvre, in the Saint Andrew Daily Missal, in his “Liturgical Note” for Christmastide, writes about bringing our participation in Christmas Mass into our lives during this season. He explains that, at Christmas Mass, “Our crib is the Altar where Jesus is born for us in quite a special way on Christmas Day.” We should bring this gift of Christ home in our hearts and represent it in our physical homes with our own Nativity scenes, centered on the manger, which symbolizes the altar at Mass. As we proceed through the Twelve Days of Christmas and celebrate the various feasts of the liturgical calendar, Dom Lefebvre encourages Christian families to say prayers, while gathered around the crèche. These prayers could be said in the morning or evening or both, using the Liturgy of the Hours or other seasonal prayers. At the crèche, we learn from the shepherds to have childlike joy, which we are to imitate, remembering that we have become children of God at our baptism. 

Beyond the change in décor from Advent to Christmas, the feasts that occur during the Twelve Days of Christmas provide a prayerful guide for how to enter into this liturgical time. Whether we celebrate them by going to a daily Mass, praying at home with the daily readings, or by praying to the saint of the day with the Collect from Mass around the dinner table or beside the crèche, being intentional about these feast days is a beautiful liturgical way to live during Christmastide. 

The first of the feasts of the Twelve Days is the feast of St. Stephen on Dec. 26; the prayer of the Church in the Collect for the first martyr asks for us to grow in the love of our enemies. Next, on Dec. 27, comes St. John the Evangelist, to whom the Lord entrusted the Blessed Mother. The Holy Innocents are commemorated on Dec. 28 —these baby boys shed their blood for Christ and show us God’s care for the weakest of us all. The Coventry Carol is a heart-wrenching song that commemorates them. Another feast within the Christmas Octave is that of St. Thomas Becket, bishop and martyr, who defended the Church against his corrupt king. A creative way to commemorate this day would be to read the play Murder in the Cathedral or watch the film Becket. The octave day of Christmas on Jan. 1 is the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, on which we commemorate that Jesus was truly God and had a human mother. It is also the day on which the Church remembers the circumcision of Jesus, the day he shed his first blood and entered into the Old Covenant as a Jew.

 The Twelve Days end with Twelfth Night, on Jan. 5, which is a traditional night to celebrate the Eve of Epiphany. While Epiphany is Jan. 8 this year, families can still have a Twelfth Night celebration on Jan. 5. Many traditionally Catholic countries have their own type of cake they bake for this night, often with a trinket, a small infant Jesus figurine, or three beans hidden inside to represent the Three Kings, with different traditions associated with the finding of them. The Epiphany was the day that Christ was revealed to the Gentiles, showing that he came to save all humanity. 

In addition to honoring these feasts, we are encouraged by the Church through this solemn and festive season to continue the Christmas celebrations with carols, cookies and other favorite holiday treats. Many families continue their Christmas gatherings throughout this time; a great new tradition would be to move all Christmas celebrations from Advent to the 12 days of Christmas or even Epiphany. Whatever you choose to do during these sacred days, it is important to make sure that they are set apart from normal life, for as Dom Lefebvre wrote:

“As home echoes of the religious observances in which we have taken part, they help to show us how far the Church’s life, which is that of Christ Himself, penetrates our life and sanctifies it. In all these ways, faith in the Incarnation of the Word is quickened more and more in our souls as time passes.” 

Merry Christmas!