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The 12 Days of Christmas

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me…

How many of us have sung this Christmas carol over the years? Every year I have to review the gifts in the song to remember: How many French Hens? Is it 10 Lords-a-Leaping or 10 Ladies Dancing? What is a Calling Bird? And I always wonder why anyone would give Geese as a gift. They are nasty birds that bite and hiss and leave less than pleasant calling cards on our fields and walkways. The only two parts of the song that I remember perfectly from year to year are: 5 Golden Rings and a Partridge in a Pear Tree. But even with all the effort to sing the song correctly each year, I still love taking on the challenge, even singing the rounds with increasing speed as the song adds layers.

Years ago, an urban myth surfaced that this carol was a pneumonic to help persecuted Christians teach their children the basics of the faith. Historians have debunked that story, but the pneumonic still offers an interesting teaching tool:
Partridge in a Pear Tree- Jesus on the Cross 
2 Turtle Doves- The Old and New Testaments 
3 French Hens - Faith, Hope and Love… or… Father, Son, Spirit 
4 Calling Birds - The four Gospels 
5 Golden Rings - The first five Books of the Old Testament 
6 Geese-a-Laying- The six Days of Creation 
7 Swans-a-Swimming - the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit 
8 Maids-a-Milking - the eight Beatitudes 
9 Ladies Dancing - the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit 
10 Lords-a-Leaping - the Ten Commandments 
11 Pipers Piping - the 11 Faithful Apostles 
12 Drummers Drumming - the 12 Points of Doctrine in the Apostles’ Creed

Most of us remember the titles of the first five books of the Bible known by our Jewish brothers and sisters as the Torah. But do we know the difference between the Gifts of the Holy Spirit and the Fruits? Do we remember the Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount- Blessed are the…? Can we list all 10 of the Commandments… and even if we can list them, do we keep them? And finally, do any of us know the 12 Points of Doctrine in the Apostles’ Creed? I leave you to your own internet search for the details of the 12-day lessons.

For the Bell family, the 12 Days of Christmas has become more than just a fun ditty, or an opportunity to review the basics of the faith. For us, the 12-Days are a way to slow down
after the Christmas rush to allow for some special Christmas moments. Years ago, I remember waking up the day after Christmas exhausted and sad. The rush to get ready for Christmas had made December a blur of to-do lists and shopping crowds. As a pastor, the demands of church added to the expectations at home to create a perfect storm. So much stress and bother just for an hour of worship on Christmas Eve and 5 minutes of ripping paper off presents on Christmas day. When all was said and done, I felt cheated… Christmas had come and gone, and I was left with dirty dishes and a pile of trash. So, one year we decided to change our whole Christmas practice. The 12 days between Christmas and the Epiphany (when we celebrate the coming of the Wisemen) became sacred time. Each evening we share a simple meal as a family, sometimes inviting friends and family to join us. After dinner, we join in a 12-Day discussion- this year entitled The Cast. Each evening we will look at one of the people who participated in the first Christmas story… Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, Herod… wondering what part we play in the story. Sometimes a present is opened, or an activity shared. But most of all, we enjoy time together shielded for a few minutes from the demands of the world.

We have added traditions to our 12-Day celebration over the years. For me, the two most significant traditions act as bookends for our Christmas season. On Christmas day, we have the privilege of serving brunch at Arch Street Methodist in Center City to guests who carry all their worldly belongings on their backs. When our children were young, we served at the Eliza Shirley House near the Convention Center- that houses homeless women and their children. Every year, we see the face of Jesus in the faces of those we serve, and we remember that when Jesus entered the world, he, too, was homeless, unwanted, an outcast, a refugee. At the end of the 12-Days, we gather on Epiphany for the procession of the Wisemen. Our granddaughters now do the honors as they move one set of Wisemen after another from their distant perch to the manger scene, bringing their gifts to the Christ Child. Each of the 12 days gives us the opportunity to remember, to reflect, to celebrate.

Our 12-Day traditions were birthed out of the tired, disappointed heart of a mother. I am wondering as you reflect on Christmas 2022, did your choices allow you time for family, for friends, for worship, for service? Were you swept along by a Christmas machine created by retailers? Are you exhausted or refreshed… disappointed or joyful…? Do you feel like your hands are tied, that your family traditions are set in a stone you cannot break? Take a step back and breathe. You have 341 days before Advent 2023 begins to consider how you want to celebrate next year. For the Bells, changing our traditions came at a cost, but the benefits have blessed us for decades. It is never too late to reclaim Christmas from the hands of a secular world!

With you celebrating the coming of the Emmanuel,
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