The Twelfth Day of Christmas

I opened the front door and was confronted by a ladder. Was a burgular climbing in at our upper window? No, a civic employee was removing the civic Christmas tree that had been planted in a civic socket on the front of the house, as on all the other buildings down the town’s main street, during the Christmas season.


Today is that season’s end, the Twelfth Day of Christmas. So the civic decorations come down, including the vastly larger Christmas tree that was erected amid crowds and carols on the first day (whenever that was) of the season. But the strings of twinkling lights across the street remain: the town, which depends on tourism, manages to find pretexts in most seasons for making the street look festive with overhead festoons of lights or pennants, one of them also suspended from the eaves of our house.

From December 25 to January 6 is 13 days inclusive, that is, if you count both of those days, or 12 if you subtract one from the other. The span of twelve days is said to be that between the visits to the new-born Jesus made by the shepherds and by the Magi. It is also said to correspond to the twelve signs of the Zodiac – though that could be said of anything twelvish, and “day” is not a unit of time that seems relatable to the Zodiac.

There is an interesting relation, or confusion, between the Twelfth Day of Christmas and the Eastern Orthodox Christmas. They used to fall on the same day, January 6, so that some (including myself) harbored a vague idea that they still do and that they are the same thing. Actually, the Eastern Christmas is the same day as the western, December 25 – but in the old Julian calendar whose slightly-too-long year was shortened into the Gregorian calendar by having fewer leap-days. From 1800 onward, the two calendars differed by 12 days, so that December 25 Julian fell on January 6 Gregorian. The next year with a Julian and not a Gregorian leap-day was 1900, so that since then the difference has been 13 days, and Eastern Christmas (Dec. 25 Julian) now falls on Jan. 7 (Gregorian). The difference will grow by another day in 2100.

Before I ceased discussing this background in the Astronomical Calendar – instead of giving simple uncontroversial lines “Jan. 7: Eastern Orthodox Christmas” and “Jan. 14: This day is Jan. 1 in the Julian calendar” – I used to receive, and store for further thought, extensive messages from people who knew better than me. So if you are another of those, I welcome correspondence.

And if you smiled at my spelling of “burgular,” please remind me which Gilbert and Sullivan opera I’m remembering it from.


8 thoughts on “The Twelfth Day of Christmas”

  1. We do miss our local Greek restaurant this week but glad they are taking some time and marking the season of light.

    We finally had a couple clear nights here and I spotted a nice little light tonight that I thought appropriate for our cold temps – the Eskimo Nebula :). Enjoying your Astronomical Calendar!

  2. Here’s something you might not have heard about “The Star of Bethlehem”..

    The Star of Bethlehem
    Quote from the book “The Star of Bethlehem” by Astronomer David Hughes, Copyright 1979 by David Hughes. Pocket Books, a Simon & Schuster division of Gulf & Western Corp, NY, NY.
    The vision of St. Maria de Algreda, Abbes of the order of St Francis in Spain:

    “At that time the angel who was sent to them [the Magi] from the stable at Bethlehem created in [or “out of “] the air, by the power of God, a star of peculiar splendor, not so great however as those of the firmament, for this star was fixed, not in the sky, but in the lower air, in order to guide the Kings to the stable at Bethlehem. This star was of great splendor, different from that of the Sun and stars.
    With its charming light it illuminated the night like a torch. When they started off from their homes, they all saw the star, although they started from different places. For it was so elevated and such a distance that all three could see it. After they had left their homes they soon met together and the star was lowered in the air and shone close to them…They went where the star guided them and when they arrived in Jerusalem (reasoning that there in the capital city the King of Judea would be born), the star disappeared from their sight….When the Kings set out from Jerusalem, the star appeared in front of them again and led them to Bethlehem where it stopped. Then having come down a little and diminishing [in size and brightness] it went into the cave or stable and diminished more and more slowly, it came to rest over the head of the Divine Child, surrounded it with a marvelous light and finally disappeared.”

    1. So, among the many suggested explanations of the star of Bethlehem, this is an example of the theory that it was some kind of atmospheric phenomenon, perhaps related to ball lightning or St. Elmo’s Fire (cover picture of my Astronomical Calendar 1981). I expect Fred Schaaf knows about this and about Hughes’s book; he is expecting to publish another book on the subject, and I hope he is near to doing so and is reading this.

  3. Actually , Guy, Advent lasts from the Sunday after Thanksgiving, usually until Christmas Eve. The Christmas Season lasts from Christmas Day unti The Baptism of Our Lord, Jan 10 to Catholics.

    1. Thanks for this more accurate statement! I do know about advent, Laetare Sunday, and various other definitions in church calendars. I guess I was using “Christmas season” in one of the loose ways observed by for instance commerce, for which in the US it seems to start immediately after Thanksgiving, and our town council, for whom it apparently ends with the Twelve Days.

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