Holy Innocents Day | The Sunday after Christmas
On the morning of Christmas Day 1626, the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral London rose to preach. He said these words:
The whole life of Christ was a continual passion; others die martyrs, but Christ was born a martyr.
The fourth day of Christmas is another reminder of this truth. Etched into the church calendar for today is the feast of The Innocents, remembering the children slaughtered in Bethlehem by order of Herod in his search for the infant messiah (recalled in the Coventry Carol), and the Son of God was taken into exile. A refugee. It is a day that quickly shatters idealized accounts of the peace proclaimed at Christ’s nativity. Instead we learn that this is a peace which will be wrought through Christ’s victory over the powers which effected such suffering in Bethlehem, and continue to rage this day.
By circumstance, today is also the Sunday after Christmas. Within Christian tradition, Sundays have always been a little Easter, the day of Christ’s resurrection from the dead and triumph over the powers. By bearing the whole Christ event in mind, we are able to celebrate and feast, even on this day.
Is it my fault that the first eight days is basically thirty birds?
– Andy Bernard, The Office
We know the twelve days of Christmas like the back of our hand: turtle-doves and geese, milkmaids and lords, pipers and drummers and a pear tree. It’s a song we sing as Christmas approaches and, like all other Christmas songs, we are absolutely ready to stop singing it by the time we get to December 25.
Title page from the first known publication of “The 12 days of Christmas” in 1780.
This may come as a surprise to some of us: English-speaking people having been singing this song for centuries but we only started singing it before Christmas very recently! The First Day of Christmas is Christmas Day. It’s a song about the days passing from December 25 through to January 5.
This twelve day period, comprising Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Day, the most important cricket matches and the most popular holiday time for Australian workers, this twelve day period is Christmas.
I’m not exactly sure when contemporary western society decided to change the Twelve Days of Christmas into the twelve days leading up to Christmas. My suspicion is it has a lot to do with the way that our retail sector depends on mad-shopping-rushes and the urgency of buying Christmas gifts at premium prices. It doesn’t do retailers much good if Christmas celebrations are dragged out over almost a fortnight after Christmas Day – we could wait to buy all our gifts in the Boxing Day sales! This year we are going to try and celebrate Christmas the old fashioned way – slowly, calmly and drawn out over two weeks. We are going to take a whole twelve days to reflect on the mystery and glory of Jesus’ incarnation; we are going to spend a whole twelve days celebrating his salvation.