In most movie versions of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, there is one detail they get horribly wrong. It has to do with the arrival of the various ghosts. You may think you know this by heart: “Expect the first when the bell tolls one, expect the second when the bell tolls two, and expect the third when the bell tolls three,” right? Wrong.
Here are Dickens’ words (which are reflected in only a couple of the film versions): “Expect the first tomorrow, when the bell tolls one. Expect the second on the next night at the same hour. The third upon the next night when the last stroke of twelve has ceased to vibrate.” OK, so three successive days–25 December, 26 December, and 27 December, right? Well, not quite. That would be right, except for this passage from Chapter 3:
Scrooge had observed this change [that the spirit seemed to grow old very quickly], but never spoke of it, until they left a children’s Twelfth Night party, when, looking at the Spirit as they stood together in an open place, he noticed that its hair was grey.
“Are spirits’ lives so short?” asked Scrooge.
“My life upon this globe, is very brief,” replied the Ghost. “It ends to-night [i.e. Twelfth Night: 5 January].”
“To-night!” cried Scrooge.
“To-night at midnight. Hark! The time is drawing near.”
So, from Scrooge’s perspective, he is with the first spirit from 1:00 a.m. Christmas Day until 1:00 a.m. on the Second Day of Christmas (26 December), with the second spirit from 1:00 a.m. on the 26th through midnight of Twelfth Night (5 January), and with the third spirit on Epiphany (6 January). That’s why it makes sense, when Scrooge awakes, to be so confused that it’s Christmas Day. When he says “I haven’t missed it,” it’s because, from his perspective, he was walking with the spirits for the entire 12 Days of Christmas!
Most historians credit Dickens with bringing the celebration of Christmas back to the popular imagination, both in Britain and here in the U.S. Before the publication of A Christmas Carol, Christmas had fallen on hard times as a celebration. A Christmas Carol helped to revive many Christmas traditions from England’s pre-Puritan past. To this day, many of our images of a “perfect” Christmas are decidedly Dickensian: carolers in Victorian garb, a plum pudding with a sprig of holly in it, Noble firs with candles, etc.” Wouldn’t it be nice if we hadn’t left out this detail of Dickens’ classic: the Christmas the spirits encouraged Scrooge to keep was not a one-day affair.
What if …
What if we really were earnest about “keeping Christmas,” as the spirits encouraged Scrooge to do? What if, along with Christmas trees, Christmas puddings, carolers, and all the other “Dickensian” elements, we also revived the custom of Twelfth Night parties? What if we made Epiphany the climax of the Christmas feast and not an almost-forgotten afterthought?
The origin of the Twelve Days of Christmas lies partly in a compromise in the early days of Christianity. Christians in Rome, and others in the Western part of the church, celebrated the Feast of the Incarnation on 25 December as “The Nativity of Our Lord.” In the Eastern Church, the principal feast of the Incarnation was the Theophany (manifestation of God) on 6 January. The Twelve Days of Christmas were a way of bridging this divide. In the West, 6 January came to be known as Epiphany, and the principal focus was the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, as illustrated by the arrival of the Magi (Wise Men), who were the first Gentiles to see Christ. Because of the lavish gifts they brought to the Christ Child, Epiphany became the chief gift-giving day of the Christmas season.
What if …
What if we spread Christmas evenly across the season, from December 25 through Epiphany? What if we held parties or feasts on Twelfth Night (Epiphany Eve) that were reminiscent of wedding feasts (as Epiphany celebrations used to be), since the Bridegroom has arrived? What if we didn’t try to crowd Christmas Eve/Day church services, stockings, presents under the tree, family games, and Christmas Dinner all into Christmas Eve/Day? What if Christians took a cue from the Jewish community and did Christmas like they do Chanukah? I’m not talking about spending 12 times as much money on Christmas. What if we spent the same (or even less) on Christmas, but just spread it out over 12 days, making more room for celebrating the events and results of the Redemption Story rather than just the trappings of its celebration?
Suggestions (and I’m just thinking out loud now): what if Christmas Eve meant church, and that’s pretty much it. What if on Christmas morning, Santa had filled the stockings, and that’s all he leaves? (Some do stockings on St. Nicholas Day: 6 December, I realize.) Then Christmas Dinner could be a bigger focus, and consequent time around the table with family and friends. Gifts from Santa (if you “do” Santa) could be opened Christmas Night, gifts from parents to children (and children to parents) on the night of the 26th, gifts from siblings to one another the night of the 27th, gifts from grandparents to grandchildren (and vice versa) on the 28th, etc. At each point, as families gather around the hearth and/or tree on each night of Christmas, the significance of each day could be shared (for example, St. Stephen on the 26th, Holy Innocents on the 28th, etc.). Each night would not have to be a gift-giving night. Days could and should be set aside, during Christmastide, for serving others: taking food to elderly and/or sick people in your church and neighborhood, taking special foods to homeless shelters or soup kitchens, etc. When I was young, my mother always liked to take bags of oranges to the Jimmie Hale Mission in Birmingham for Christmas so the men who ate there could have fresh fruit.
Does your family or church have any special traditions for celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas and Epiphany? Any things you want to try next year?