Advent is my favorite season. The waiting, the candles, the music, the smells of cookies and gingerbread baking, the early darkness; I revel in all of it. As a child with infinite imagination, every year I embraced the anticipation of the Christ child with all my heart. And yes, Santa and gifts were fine with me too. But it is the expectation of wonder that thrills my heart.
These days, as a parent, a Christian educator, and a reluctant adult, it’s all a little more complicated. There are seemingly endless lists and events, there are not enough hours in any given day, and there are the complexities of planning and hosting extended family. As such, for many years I found myself feeling a bit let down every year on Christmas day. Not by any disappointment in our family’s Christmas traditions or giving – it is more than generous – but by knowing that Advent was over for another year and feeling I’d failed to fully embrace the waiting.
So began our family’s tradition of celebrating the 12 Days of Christmas.
Many years ago I was given a set of 12 nesting boxes, the first beautifully decorated with a partridge in a pear tree, the next with two turtle doves…you get the idea. They were to save me from one of the only Christmas activities I don’t love, which is wrapping presents. I deeply loathe wrapping even the gifts I’m most excited to give my loved ones. Cutting the paper in anything resembling a straight line, creating neat corners with a minimum of tape, tying intricate bows; it all eludes me. So for a few years I happily placed gifts in the 12 Days of Christmas boxes, added a simple tag, and gleefully piled them in a tall stack by the tree.
Until the year I realized I had way over-bought for my boys. Neither the big, show-stopping presents nor stocking stuffers, but small, personal, special items I’d picked up over the course of several months. All simple gifts that would bring us together, still these little things felt like an embarrassment of consumerism. Then the Holy Spirit pointed me to the 12 Days of Christmas boxes, inspiration struck, and a new tradition was born. I lovingly placed these smaller gifts, one for each of the 12 days, in the boxes and stacked them to the back of the tree, where they’d be out of the way on Christmas morning.
When the frenzy of stockings and gift opening and playing with new toys and building that year’s Lego masterpiece and turkey and stuffing and all the rest were finished, in the quiet evening lull, I quietly pulled out the smallest box. I showed it to the boys and explained that this, Christmas Day, is the first of the 12 Days of Christmas. Feral church children though they may be, my boys tend to miss the liturgical Christmas season. It is a much-needed break for me as a church employee, and for them from the routines and pressures of school. So they hadn’t realized that Christmas is a season rather than a day.
I can’t tell you what I put in that little box for our first 1st Day of Christmas; I don’t remember. But I remember the joy and the wonder of extending our Christmas togetherness and giving. I recall the light in their eyes as they asked each day when we would open the next box. I know that the boxes were filled with games, crafts, cocoa mixes, and possibly a movie or two – all gifts that called for time we would spend together.
Since that first year the 12 Days of Christmas have become our own special tradition. We have taken some of the boxes with us when we’ve traveled – it’s delightful when hotel employees stack them on the trolley with our luggage and ask the boys what’s in them, and I listen as they explain the 12 Days of Christmas to someone new. We missed last year, or so I thought, because we surprised the boys with a trip to London. But at one point in our travels, my youngest told me happily that we didn’t need the boxes, as every day brought a new adventure together.
Poetically, we flew home on the Feast of the Epiphany.
The 12 Days of Christmas begin on Christmas day and continue until January 6, when we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. You don’t need fancy boxes to try this tradition with your own family; gifts bags, shirt or gift boxes, or even decorated grocery bags would work. Fill them with games, puzzles, crafts, even the ingredients to bake something – the most important part of this tradition for our family is that it brings us together.
How will your family celebrate the full 12 Days of Christmas?