December 25th is known as Christmas Day for many people throughout the world. While this day is celebrated with traditions, church services, Christmas decorations, the annual visit of Santa Claus, and gift-giving, Christmas is also celebrated by Christians as the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. However, while December 25th may be the main day for observing this sacred event, Christians actually honor Jesus’ birth throughout the months of December and January, through Advent, the Twelve Days of Christmas or Twelvetide, and Epiphany. These three holidays are as important as Christmas, but may be lesser known to those outside of Christianity. Let’s take a look at the meaning of these holidays and their connection to Christmas.
Starting on Sunday, November 29th, and ending on Thursday, December 24th, Advent honors the preparations made for Jesus’ birth and the return of Jesus in the Second Coming. It is also the beginning of the Western liturgical year or the Christian calendar year. The church sees the four Sundays of Advent as the “last days” before the return of Christ. The history of this event can connect to scripture passages Acts 2:17, Hebrews 1:2, and many others. In Advent, churches are excited about Jesus’ birth and are waiting for the return of Christ.
The Advent wreath is one of the key symbols of this month. The wreath is composed of flat evergreen branches in a circle with five candles. Four of the candles, usually red, surround the remaining white candle in the middle. Each of the four candles is lit on each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. The last candle in the middle, the Christ Candle, is lit on Christmas Day. All of the components of the wreath have a special connection to Christianity. The green of the evergreen branches represents the hope people have in God. The circle stands for God and His mercy, which has no beginning or end, like a circle. As for the candles, each has its own meaning. The first is the Candle of Hope of God’s people. The second is the Candle of Peace and the prophets in the Old Testament. The third is the Candle of Love and also stands for John the Baptist. The fourth is the Candle of Joy and for Mary, the mother of Jesus. The fifth candle, the one in the middle, is the Christ Candle and when lit, reminds people of the light Christ brings to the world. Advent calendars are also used to count down the days to Christmas during this special time.
The Twelve Days of Christmas –
For some people, the Twelve Days of Christmas are represented through the classic carol. The song describes the gifts a true love gives for twelve days at Christmastime. In fact, there are actually twelve days of a Christmas: December 25–January 5. These days, also known as Twelvetide, are observed for the twelve days Christians believe it took the wise men to travel to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus. Some people honor these days by having feasts for the various saints. The first day, Christmas day, celebrates Jesus. December 26th is known as Boxing Day or St. Stephen’s Day. Other saints commemorated are St. John the Apostle, St. Thomas Becket, and St. Basil the Great. The feasts also honor the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which remembers the babies killed by King Herod when he was looking for Jesus and the Virgin Mary. On the final night, Epiphany Eve, big parties with the Twelfth Night Cake are held to celebrate the end of winter and the wise men recognizing Jesus as the Son of God in Epiphany. The traditions for this evening date back to medieval and Tudor times.
On January 6th, Christians come together and recognize Epiphany. This holiday is observed in a few different ways. Eastern religions see the day as Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan. Western religions recognize Epiphany as the arrival of the three wise men and the bringing of their gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Some celebrate this season from January 6th to Ash Wednesday. It is a day of feast and merriment. One popular tradition is to eat a Three Kings’ Cake, or “Rosca de Reyes.” Inside the cake is a toy baby Jesus. The person who finds the baby is then known as the “Godparent of Jesus” for that day. Other observations of the holiday are placing marks by your front door to welcome the blessings of the three wise men, and holding candlelit worship services.
For many people, Christmas doesn’t end on December 25th. Christians remember the birth of Jesus weeks before Christmas and days after. These special holidays hold important meanings and are recognized as being an integral part of Christianity.