Tradition and the Twelve Days of Christmas


Source: St. Peter Orthodox Church | Fr. Hans Jacobse

In the Christian tradition of both east and west, the twelve days of Christmas refer to the period from Christmas Day to Theophany. The days leading up to Christmas were for preparation; a practice affirmed in the Orthodox tradition by the Christmas fast that runs from November 15 to Christmas day. The celebration of Christmas did not begin until the first of the twelve days.

As our culture became more commercialized, the period of celebration shifted from Thanksgiving to Christmas Day. Christmas celebration increasingly conforms to the shopping cycle while the older tradition falls by the wayside. It’s an worrisome shift because as the tradition dims, the knowledge that the period of preparation imparted diminishes with it.

Our Orthodox traditions — from fasting cycles to worship –exist to teach us how to live in Christ. The traditions impart discipline. These disciplines are never an end in themselves but neither can life in Christ be sustained apart from them.

The traditions only make sense only when they have the Gospel as their reference. If we forget that these traditions are given to us to help us lay hold of Christ, then they appear to be superfluous and the disciplines they encourage us to do seem to serve no real purpose. We start to evaluate the discipline by the values of the dominant culture — by a cost-benefit calculus, rather than seeing them as ways to morally reorient ourselves towards Christ.

Instead of preparing for the birth of Christ through inward reorientation, we follow the direction of the dominant culture and skip any preparation altogether. We party instead of fast. We get caught up in the commercial energy of the season rather than wait on the Spirit of God.

It’s a dangerous path. Our culture is becoming increasingly secularized; the sacred dimension of creation is slipping from view. This loss of this sacred sensibility has grave ramifications for society that are expressed in many different ways such as the vulgarization of popular culture or the reduction of an unborn child to a commodity. If this view prevails our culture will inevitably view man as nothing more than an animal or a machine.

But man is more than an animal or a machine. The scriptures reveal man is created in the image and likeness of God, a phrase that means that man is not complete unless he partakes of God — God must be part of man’s life. This longing — this innate knowledge that man is created for God — never leaves man although a person can bury it if he so chooses.

A secularized mind is blind to the inherent holiness of life. Maintaining our traditions is one way to avoid this debilitating malady. Christmas is not just “Jesus’ birthday” (an impoverished notion heard more and more even among Orthodox faithful), but much more.

The birth of Christ and His baptism ought never to be divorced. Both events define the Christmas season. It imparts to the Christian the knowledge that Christ’s coming into the world and Christ’s sanctification of the waters makes our new life possible — a sonship by adoption accomplished through baptism.

When the link between Christmas and Theophany is broken (and by neglecting the proper preparation we break it), the cultural memory of the promise of new birth expresses itself in weakened and ultimately insufficient cultural forms. These forms function as a new tradition.

Religion is not the product of culture; religion is the source, writes philosopher Russell Kirk.

“It’s from an association in a cult, a body of worshipers, that human community grows…when belief in the cult has been wretchedly enfeebled, the culture will decay swiftly. The material order rests on the spiritual order.”

Orthodox Christianity can contribute to the recovery of the moral foundation of American culture by imparting knowledge that can strengthen and deepen that foundation. It won’t happen however, if the Orthodox faithful adopt the practices of the dominant culture in place of their own tradition.


  1. Michael Bauman says

    We are not human without God. The Incarnation makes that clear. Animal in our lusts; machines in our nihilist utilitarianism. Animals are more fecund; machines more efficient.

    Lord save us.

  2. The problem, at least from my point of view as a newcomer, is lack of education. When traditions are just assumed because we have always done it that way, and not explained, not embellished in any way, then we have a tendency to forget why we are doing things. Ah, Christmas is coming, it is time to fast again. period. Ah, we celebrate a saints day and nothing is said about the saint. Same liturgy with a different troparian and kontakian thrown in but that is it. Rarely do the litanies reflect anything going on in our world, They are all generic and bland. For the newcomer this all just becomes a blur after a while. At least this is what goes on in my parish, and then it is followed by a lecture on poor attendance. Unless there is constant teaching on why we do things and how to do things, the reason behind it all gets lost. In my parish the priest refuses to read the part of the service that explains why we are celebrating the Eucharist. The whole historical basis for the event is hidden from our ears. It is like we are not supposed to know about it. Really????

    The secular world creeps in when the Church is not doing its job.

    • Pere LaChaise says

      This is so sad to hear and my heart aches for your sake, especially as a newcomer disappointed at what he came looking for and largely did not find. Forgive me if I am froward; do you live in a town where there are other Orthodox parishes or a monastery nearby? I do not suggest changing your parish affiliation but instead you might augment it by affiliation throughout the wider Orthodox community at hand. Try to attend a fuller cycle of services, and suggest to the priest that he might read the consecratory prayers aloud, if not on Sunday, then on liturgies celebrated on other days. He ought to hear about it from somebody!
      In my limited experience, I see that parishioners who experience any disappointment typically do little about it and just adapt to it. Best to be proactive in your personal faith and diligently seek ways to find spiritual fulfillment in your Orthodoxy.It IS available, but one has to earn it, as it were. Salvation is free, but not cheap.

    • Orandi Credendi etc. says


      Thank you for sharing your impressions candidly. A fresh set of eyes can indeed notice things that familiarity can cause one to ignore. You are undoubtedly correct that catechesis is sorely lacking in many places. Before becoming disillusioned, however, you may wish to consider whether your conception of “education” is narrower than the Church’s. The Church intends for her faithful to be educated primarily (but certainly not exclusively) by the collective wisdom of the Church rather than by a single pastor. This is not to cast aspersions upon homilies or educational classes; they are entirely appropriate and salutary. They are not, however, a substitute for the education and formation of the nous that takes places in the services, most especially Vespers and Orthros. Lack of attendance at these services is the single largest reason for ignorance of the Faith among the faithful. The reasons that the Liturgy for a saint contains relatively few direct references to the saint are 1) the Liturgy is ultimately always about Christ and “the things that have come to pass for us”; and 2) the Church assumes that, by the time we get to the Liturgy, we have sung ourselves nearly hoarse about the saint in the Stichera, Litiya, and Aposticha of Vespers and the Kathismal hymns, Canon, Exaposteilarion, and Praises of Orthros. A Liturgy divorced from this fountain of truth will indeed leave many attendees wondering what the liturgical event has to do with the historical basis. Such confusion is most certainly not, however, the fault of the Typikon, but rather the fault either of the priest for not serving Vespers and Orthros or of the laity for not attending.

      • Tim R. Mortiss says

        While I had been a sort of fellow-traveler with the Orthodox for many decades, what got me going to become a catechumen was regular attendance at Vespers services last Lent. I agree that there is a lot of substantive material in the Vespers services, including a great amount of direct use of Scripture.

        I find that you have to work hard to pay attention to the texts, though. As they are rapidly sung instead of read at an ordinary pace, it is easy to lapse into the music of the reading and no longer really hear the text. There is far more Scripture read in Orthodox services, particularly the Vespers, than is ever read in a Protestant church service, but great attention is required to follow it all.

        That’s my experience, anyway.

  3. perhaps we should encourage the use of “Happy Holiday” for the winter secular celebration and keeep seperate and holy the Christian mystery of the Incarnation. Why cast pearls before the swine? Really, what does a 51″ TV have to do with the birth of Christ? Let “them” have their black friday and cyber monday. Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas–Two completely different things.

  4. Sean Richardson says

    This is a very thoughtful article. Thank you!
    The problem I see is the tension between the dates of the Nativity/Christmas and that of Epiphany/Baptism. Historically, they were not twelve days apart, they were thirty years apart. It is very difficult to maintain a connection between events that were thirty years in the making.
    Finally, and on this I appreciate some of what Jeff said above, as a convert I enjoy the coming of the celebration of the Nativity with the lights, carols, decorations, planning, etc. This is not to suggest that we should fight our way to the shelf with the last PS4, but rather, we should celebrate the coming through preparation, prayer, thoughtfulness, planning, and yes, joy.
    Finally, my Christmas trivia: Nowhere in scripture does it say there were three wise men, the angels did not sing but spoke, the wise men did not come to the manger, and the real kicker, the Nativity didn’t happen in December, or January for that matter.

  5. I suppose I agree with greggo in a way. I assume that for all intents and purposes modern America is pagan and that real Christianity will stand out like a sore thumb, not blend with the culture – Eastern Christianity all the more so. I just assume that anyone outside the Church is secularized unless they demonstrate otherwise. To them, I wish “Happy Holidays”, assuming that Christmas; i.e., the Feast of the Nativity, is meaningless to them apart from parties, gifts, “ole Saint Nick”, reindeer, etc.

    To real (conservative) Christians I may say “Merry Christmas!”. To Orthodox, either the same or “Christ is Born, Glorify Him!” which cuts to the chase. It’s better to just break with the culture and see Christmas as a religious holiday for which we prepare by fasting and prayer. The parties are little more than an invitation to break the fast and are inherently heterodox. One nice thing about celebrating Nativity on the Old Calendar is that it’s a constant reminder that your holiday is not the same one as that of the popular culture (that and that you get bargains on any gifts or decorations). I mean, if next Wednesday went by like any other day for you, that would certainly emphasize the point, wouldn’t it?

    • Misha and Greggo,

      Language is a funny thing, the English language in particular. It has many ways of reminding us of just how things developed. For example, we commonly refer to operating a motor vehicle as driving when, in fact, only horses, mules, etc. are driven. The word Teamster is still used to describe union truck-drivers (there’s that word again) when, in fact, the teams they used to drive with whips and reigns have long been supplanted by another technology.

      Likewise with the word holiday. One need not be a linguist to figure out how this word came into our vocabulary. Thus, those who wish others “Happy Holidays” in the hope of denying Christ unwittingly participate in His reality – every bit as much as they do when they date their documents. It’s almost comical when one thinks about it.

      When I hear “Happy Holidays” I can only smile and thank God that every tongue confesses Him as Lord even if they despise Him in their hearts.

      • Maybe we should reply “Happy Holy Day!”

        • traditional says

          I see no reason to hide our traditional statement = With the Birth of God and the New Year!

          or sometimes I say May You Have a Merry Little Baby God Day!

          Sometimes I get kinda worried that what some people are celebrating isn’t holy>

    • Pere LaChaise says

      Misha, the statements you made above betray how secularized you are already: “It’s better to just break with the culture and see Christmas as a religious holiday…”
      “… celebrating Nativity on the Old Calendar is … a constant reminder that your holiday is not the same one as that of the popular culture”

      This is more fruit of ‘Old Calendarism’ which sets up an anti-evangelistic precept for Orthodox Christianity, where even the date is different inside the temple (13 days earlier) and the katholic faith is reduced to mere religion. If the salt lose its savor, then what is it good for? An Orthodoxy content to leave the world unmolested in its pursuit of perdition is hardly worth giving one’s life for. And the Lord Jesus didn’t die on the Cross so we could have ourselves a merry little Pascha. Orthodoxy is for the whole world and all its people, not as yet one more religion, but a way of being with, and in God incarnate. Religion simply means ‘to bind together’ – the result of cult, like culture, but not the existential experience at its creative core.

      • “An Orthodoxy content to leave the world unmolested in its pursuit of perdition is hardly worth giving one’s life for.”

        Agreed. We should offer it a different road to a different destination, not one parallel to the one it is already on.

    • Tim R. Mortiss says

      That darn “heterodoxy” again! It must be frustrating, being West of the Carpathians, all the way through the entire Western hemisphere….heterodoxy all around! Accordingly, you run into a lot of people “outside the Church”….. no kidding!

    • It’s interesting you mention being on the old calendar the first year was a whirl wind on the old calendar for us and we were out of sorts. It was weird waiting for Christmas. We had the kids open presents on the 25, but then I found something I had always wanted and that was to not confuse the Santa myth and materialism and stress with what this fast and feast were all about. I always struggled to have our focus on the birth of Christ. By separating the opening of the mounds of gifts the kids get from every relative and friend from the solemn prayers and fasting leading up to Christmas we have found a rhythm that is more clear and less hectic in preparing for Christmas. Now I prefer this separation from the rest of society because it is really something different. I have also noticed that the more we insist on the fasting, the prayer life, going to several services a week and now waiting for Christ’s birth the more our neighbors and friends ask questions and ask to come to church with us. They can see for themselves there is something real going on here.

  6. So how is this love that we are supposed to show reflected in the treatment that Met. Jonah has received by those who preach this message. Are we to emulate the message or the messenger?

    • It looks as if God has chosen a lowly duck hunter from Louisiana whose life he redeemed from desolation to spread the good news in the USA and to teach us what sin is. What a Christmas message!

  7. Michael Kinsey says

    Christ is risen, Christ is born, both exclaimations can be exhilarating with the grace of God, and a genuine smile or rememberence , that all good mankind has ever experienced come from the Only Holy One, who sent His Son to give it to us .Merry Christmas!

  8. traditional belief that Jesus had both a divine & human nature was being challenged at the time by Monophysitism, an outgrowth of the Alexandrian school. Their followers believed that Christ had only a single divine nature. The council rejected that belief. In their Chalcedonian definition, affirmed Christ had two natures which were “…without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” This formulation has survived as the traditional belief to the present day among almost all branches of Christendom.

  9. ChristineFevronia says

    Merry Christmas, Monomakhos friends!

    To you, George–our cheerful innkeeper who hosts this tavern of motley souls–a blessed Nativity!

    To all whom I’ve grown acquainted with on this site through dialogue and discourse–especially Colette, Veronica, DC Nun, M. Stankovich, Carl Kraeff, Lexcaritas, Helga, Bishop Tikhon, Michael Bauman, James, Amazed in the Midwest, LOH, Knows the Score, Lola, Phillipa, Fr. John, Fr. Peter, and many others–it is a blessing to stand here with you, awaiting the birth of our Savior in this darkened age.

    To my old friends in the OCA, peace and good will to you! To my new friends in the Church Abroad (ROCOR), thanks for giving my family a home in one of your Light-filled parishes! And to all Orthodox Christians everywhere, blessings of the Nativity!

    “God bless us, every one.” –The Prayer of Tiny Tim

  10. ChristineFevronia says

    Thank you, Peter! I’ll keep my eyes open too, over the next three weeks leading up to Nativity, and if I see ROCOR’s Nativity letter, I’ll post it here.

    You might enjoy this amazing sermon that has been posted on the feast day of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker:
    Sermon by Metropolitan Anthony

  11. Christ's unprofitable servant, Seraphim says

    Thanks, Father Hans! This is sound advice that many of us need to heed.

  12. from Theodoros II, Pope and Pa;triarch of Alexandria, All Egypt, and All Africa says


    Ref. No:181/2013


    “You transformed my poverty through Your condescension, You humbled Yourself and elevated my race”

    My dear Brothers and Sisters,

    Two thousand years ago, the Son and Word of God came out of Himself, while remaining who He was, in order to recruit and therapeutically transform deluded and weak Adam. He left the blessedness of the internal triune
    community, departed from the heavens and came to live on earth in order to restore the unity of mankind with God.

    God was not content to order and it would be done but humbled Himself and became man Himself to teach a new way of life. A touchstone tool of verification to measure the authenticity of a life according to Christ is none
    other than love, which accepts and forgives everyone and everything and reaches even the sacrifice on the Cross. This love cannot be perceived as an unspecified emotional expression, not even as a conventional acceptance and
    hospitality of family and friends. It is perceived mainly as an acceptance and a transformation of others and of the unknown, on the standards of acceptance and transformation of mankind by Jesus Christ.

    And if the Only-begotten Son of God came out of love to give meaning toour existence, today, thousands of our African brothers and sisters, oppressed by servile necessity are forced to change the place and the manner. Oppressed by situations, they travel the road of the refugee and immigration, their only luggage being hope for a better tomorrow. Some do not manage to reach the Promised Land and they lose their lives stateless. Yet even those who manage to enter the land of expectation, often experience worthlessness, rejection, rebuke, exploitation.

    My dear brothers and sisters,

    I am well aware that the phenomenon of immigration has taken on the nature of a flood tide, the extent of which frightens the receiving communities. It is time for these communities to change their attitude and to comprehend that human suffering will sooner or later break down whichever walls are built to deter the desperate immigrant. It is time to grasp that only if the problems of societies which trigger immigration are faced, only then will the stream of immigration be reversed.

    Till then, though, and especially on this eve of the Nativity of the God-Man, let us not forget the words of the poet:

    “I open the door tonight,
    I hold aloft the lamp,
    So that the distressed on earth can see
    and come to find companionship…
    Christ will come as a companion too.

    Many years!

    Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa

  13. ChristineFevronia says