For most North Americans, the only reminder that Christmas was historically a 12-day festival is the song "The 12 Days of Christmas," with its turtledoves, partridges and other incomprehensible gifts. The song probably doesn't have religious origins, but it's about the only time Christians in this culture talk about the "days of Christmas," plural.
Ironically, while the alleged war on Christmas is a non-starter, our culture has waged a very successful war on Christmastide, or the religious observation of the 12 days between Christmas Day and Epiphany. This week's after-Christmas sales and buildup to New Year's Eve serve to bury Christmastide. The real challenge isn't putting Christ back in Christmas, but putting Christmastide back in Christmas.
Almost every December, syndicated religion columnist Terry Mattingly writes a column on the historical difference between Advent and Christmas, and the historical length of Christmas as a 12-day-period. Mattingly is Eastern Orthodox, a tradition that faithfully maintains Christmas as a 12-day liturgical season. Last year his entry featured a letter from Father Dino Bottino, Bishop of Salt Lake City, to his diocese, urging parishioners to defer their Christmas celebration - even their Christmas decorations - until Dec. 25.
"Too often, the season of Advent is overshadowed by the ‘holiday season’ as we move too quickly into celebrating Christmas," Bottino wrote. "By the time that the actual solemnity of Christmas arrives, many of us are burned out.” As a result, “Christmas has become anticlimactic.”
The next two weeks, we can heed Bottino's call not to rush or miss this season of extended celebration and reflection on the Incarnation, on our way to Epiphany. As Bottino put it, "There is plenty of time for us to celebrate our joy at Christ's birth and we should make the most of it."