When are the 12 Days of Christmas anyway?

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There’s no other time of the year that people sing about partridges in pear trees, turtle doves, French hens, calling birds and lords a-leaping. So does anyone have a clue about when those 12 days of Christmas actually occur on the calendar?


Old Man Winter, along with Santa Claus, was arriving with a vengeance earlier this month during Washington’s annual Christmas parade, but spectators and those handing out freebies were kind enough to oblige a reporter doing person-on-the-street interviews.


As the pouring rain turned into little bouncing balls of sleet and then a White-Christmasy snowfall, Washingtonians gathered on South Main Street had an opportunity to weigh in on the subject.


“The end is when Jesus comes into the world Dec. 25 and the beginning would be 12 days prior to that. Enjoy your journey tonight,” said a bursting-with-Christmas-spirit Royce Karpy of Washington who, under a canopy set up not far from the Bible Chapel, was preparing to hand out free hot dogs, hot chocolate and coffee on behalf of his congregation.


Friday, the 13th of December turned out to be a typical response, but that day actually has nothing to do with the 12 days of Christmas.


“I have no idea,” said Duane Emanuel, answered in response to the question as the melody of “Silver Bells, Silver Bells,” played appropriately in the background. Braving an assortment of appalling weather was no problem for Emanuel, who moved to Washington from another cold-weather capital, Buffalo, N.Y.


Nearby, Louis Deems of Washington, “grew up, born and raised here,” theorized that the 12 Days of Christmas start “at Hanukkah and end Dec. 24th.”


“Ooh, yay!” exclaimed an enthusiastic Travis Whitlock, 11, of Washington, at the opportunity to comment. “Is this going to be in the newspaper?” he asked.


Calculating quickly in his head, he responded to the parade-goer-in-the-street question saying, “It starts on the 14th of December and ends on the 25th.”


Anna Roten gave what was beginning to seem like the standard response when she said, “I think it starts on the 13th and ends on the 25th,” as she sought shelter from the storm inside a storefront’s convenient alcove.


“It starts on the 25th and it ends on Jan. 6,” said Melissa Appleton, 21. “Jan. 6 is considered Little Christmas because it took the wise men 12 days to actually get to Jesus.”


“What she said,” echoed Mercedes Roten, 21, wearing a black eyelash-yarn scarf and a green and white “We are Marshall” sweatshirt. She expected to be in Pittsburgh that night performing with a drum corps, but when the event was canceled, she was able to see a family member march in the Washington Christmas parade.


If anyone gave out prizes for correct responses to the “When are the 12 days of Christmas” question, Appleton would win the prize.


There’s a bit of disagreement among denominations about the 12 days of Christmas. Dennis Brachter on “The Voice” website of the Christian Resource Institute, writes, “Contrary to much popular belief, these are not the 12 days before Christmas, but in most of the Western Church are the 12 days from Christmas to the beginning of Epiphany (Jan. 6; the 12 days count from Dec. 25 until Jan. 5). In some traditions, the first day of Christmas begins on the evening of Dec. 25 with the following day considered the First Day of Christmas (Dec. 26). In these traditions, the 12 days begin Dec. 26 and include Epiphany Jan. 6.


“The origin and counting of the 12 days is complicated, and is related to differences in calendars, church traditions and ways to observe this holy day in various cultures … Since Eastern Orthodox traditions use a different religious calendar, they celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7 and observe Epiphany, or Theophany, on Jan. 19.”


“Some argue that one way or the other,” allowed the Rev. Stephen Smith, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Washington.


He adheres to the Dec. 26 to Jan. 6, calling the latter date “the Feast of the Epiphany, the time of discovering the gift of the Christ Child by the three Wise Men.”


We don’t know how many kings, or magi, there were, but traditional holds there were three because the Gospel of Matthew records the presentation of three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.


Smith had a secretary who was British. She celebrated Boxing Day Dec. 26. Under that system, the 12 days are the gap between western Christmas and Orthodox Christmas Jan. 7.


He pointed to a tendency among Americans to concentrate on the run up to Christmas and then drop it like a half-chewed candy cane. He’d like to see that change.


“It’s not just Christmas Day,” he said. “The notion of spreading the celebration out over multiple days seems like a good thing. Back in the day, they used to celebrate weddings not just on one day, but it went on for days. In Advent, we get ready for Christmas in a spirit of hope, peace, love and joy and it would be nice to pass those on year-round, not just on Christmas day.”


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