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Nativity & the Twelve Days of Christmas

Nativity & the Twelve Days of Christmas

Anyone who has spent any amount of time in the United States (or the UK, or Australia, and probably most of the English-speaking world) during Christmas knows the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas," primarily for its impressive length—and the bombastic "five golden rings!" chorus. We have accepted that there are, or were, Twelve Days of Christmas, but what are they?

On the church calendar, there are twelve days from Christmas Day to the Eve of Theophany (or Epiphany), and in England and many parts of the West, these twelve days were traditionally celebrated as the season of Christmastide. Orthodox Christians fast for the forty days prior to the Nativity of Christ, and enjoy a fast-free period for the eleven days following the feast. This was historically observed in the West, as well (though without the fast we observe on the Eve of Theophany), and so those twelve days became a time of feasting and merry-making as Christians celebrated the birth of our Lord.

Many of the traditions we celebrate as Orthodox Christians today have continued in some form in modern observances of the Twelve Days, such as house blessings and polar swimming (a Russian folk practice). We have compiled a list of traditions, ideas and resources for observing the Twelve Days of Christmas according to the Orthodox calendar, to help you prepare for the festal season where we can happily proclaim "Christ is born! Glorify Him!"

(Featured Image by Brooke Lark)

1. Nativity | Christmas Day


Also celebrated today are the Three Wise Men (Magi) and the Shepherds who went to see the Lord:


2. Synaxis of the Theotokos

On the day after the Nativity of Christ we celebrate the Synaxis of the Most Holy Theotokos, and come together to give her glory and praise. This is the second day of the three-day Winter Pascha.

"Combining the hymns of the Nativity with those celebrating the Mother of God, the Church points to Mary as the one through whom the Incarnation was made possible. His humanity—concretely and historically—is the humanity He received from Mary. His body is, first of all, her body. His life is her life. This feast, the assembly in honor of the Theotokos, is probably the most ancient feast of Mary in the Christian tradition, the very beginning of her veneration by the Church."

Fr. Alexander Schmemann



3. St. Stephen the Protomartyr

The third day of the Nativity is dedicated to the Protomartyr Saint Stephen. This is the third day of the three-day Winter Pascha. St. Stephen is the patron saint of Serbia, and many families have St. Stephen as their slava, or family patron saint, and this day is part of larger seasonal festivities.


4. 20,000 Martyrs of Nicomedia


5. Holy Innocents


6. Virginmartyr Anysia


7. St. Melania the Younger / King David, St. Joseph the Betrothed, and St. James the Brother of the Lord


The Sunday after Nativity is dedicated to the family of the Lord—King David, St. Joseph, and St. James. (If there is no Sunday between December 25 and January 1, their commemoration is moved to December 26.)


8. Circumcision of Christ / St. Basil the Great


9. St. Seraphim of Sarov


10. St. Genevieve of Paris


11. Synaxis of the Seventy Apostles


12. Eve of Theophany

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a feast of Christmas treats laid out beautifully

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