How to Create Wonder in Your Heart and Home during the 12 Days of Christmas
The days following Christmas Day are a mix of emotions. In America, it can be a depressing time as we come down from the excitement of the month. It can also be a time to keep up the momentum for end-of-year duties at the workplace. For some lucky ones, it may be a time to relax at last.
No matter what this time period has become for you, we can probably agree that Christmas comes to an abrupt end. Even when we try to let it linger, the world around us has moved on, and the longer we leave up the decorations, the more behind we feel.
So, what do we do with all that we learned and experienced during the most wonderful time of the year? We so often move on from it, too.
Did you know that Christmas Day used to be the beginning of the celebration instead of the end? Sometimes it still is in liturgical churches. But in truth, it feels too unrealistic and awkward to fully practice that in our culture today. (I know, I’ve tried.)
After all, we already celebrate Christmas for at least 25 days, and that’s plenty. Instead of the 12 days of Christmas, like it once was, the Christmas season now means to us the days between Thanksgiving and December 25.
But if you’re following the liturgical church calendar, those are the days reserved for Advent, a time of anticipation. During Advent, Christians remember the events leading up to the Messiah’s birth. The season of Advent reminds us to be ready and waiting for King Jesus to return again.
Bear with me, but I believe there is more wisdom than we think in the old liturgical calendar of the church.
The word Christmastide is another way of saying "Christmas season." The season of Christmas begins on Christmas Eve at sunset and lasts until January 5 (12 days). It is followed by Epiphany on January 6. Epiphany is sometimes known as Three Kings’ Day, and the gift-giving that is now mostly done on Christmas Day was once a big part of this day to commemorate the wise men giving gifts to Jesus.
The word epiphany means “manifestation” or “revelation,” and the holiday Epiphany means to celebrate the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles, which is represented by the wise men. Epiphany also sometimes commemorates the baptism of Jesus, or sometimes the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine. These were the first manifestations of Christ to the world.
Traditionally in the past, Christmas decorations did not go down until Epiphany. If they were left up, they stayed until Feb 2, Candlemas, a day to celebrate the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple.
Do you see what is happening? The church liturgical calendar is a schedule that follows the progression of significant events in the life of Christ. It spans a whole year and follows Christ’s birth through Pentecost (when the Holy Spirit arrived after Christ’s ascension).
Earlier this year, I was planning the Christmas and Easter traditions that I wanted to start for my one-year-old. I realized I could maybe help him understand the significance of these holidays better if I connected the story by teaching him about Jesus’ life during the time between Christmas and Easter. Then I got excited and thought about how I could then connect to Pentecost.
Then a light bulb came on in my non-denominational, contemporary-style-service, millennial head.
I looked at the plans I was painstakingly making. The church leadership of ages past had already done this! They had created this schedule centuries ago complete with symbolic visuals and feast days to teach the people - illiterate and spiritually-childlike as they may have been at times. Over and over each year, the life of Christ was unfolded for the flock.
Why do it this way? Well, the Lord tells us that is the best way to do it, and that’s where my thinking had been when I started my own planning.
The Lord commanded the Jews in Deuteronomy 11: “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”
If the best chance I can give Ari is to teach Him the Lord’s ways, I must also simultaneously teach him who the Lord is… “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (Prov 22:6)
The trend in church world for my generation has been to reject tradition. To the rebellious millennials, church tradition was meaningless and empty. Therefore, it caused hurt. Many felt they were victims of the hurt and that tradition prevented people from understanding a relationship with Jesus was needed. In our perception, the old style of church worship caused confusion or negativity more than it brought people to salvation. It was important to get rid of everything “churchy” so people could approach a church building again, meet Jesus and be saved.
To be sure, we weren’t wrong. But stripping all value from all tradition was likely a mistake. We threw the baby out with the bathwater, so-to-speak. The passionate desperation of the millennials to get rid of tradition, and the traditionalists' passionate desperation to hold onto it, became the biggest dividing factor in church families across America for a time. But that is a topic for another day.
More and more, as a few millennials have trickled back to church to raise their children well, and some dear, courageous Gen Zers are getting serious about opening their Bibles, too, the return to tradition seems to be occurring just as much as Spirit-led churches are adapting once more to meet the new needs of today.
That is because tradition has value in human hearts. God, who made us, knew that the traditions taught in love by parents were what children would pass on to their children. So, when our times of worshipping God and learning about Him together become special family traditions, His blessings become generational, as they are meant to be.
To me, that is why I find it important and exciting to create wonder as much as I can for the special events of the church year.
When it comes to the 12 days of Christmas, I’ve found it to be too difficult and pointless in our culture to fight change if not necessary. God did not command a 12-day celebration for Christmas, and this time of year was long ago known as the pagan Yuletide, so it’s not something to be too dogmatic about anyway (see notes below this article).
Instead, I brainstormed subtle but meaningful ways to make Christmastide its own season again but still align with the culture change. These plans are compatible with taking down Christmas decorations if you wish it, but they link Christmas Day with the rest of the year. Perhaps this season of light can yet prolong our adoration of the King in today's world, for He is worthy.
Below are some suggestions to help you set Christmastide apart as a special time of peace and joy for yourself, your home and your family.
12 Days of Prayer
This idea is an adaptation of an activity from the Advent devotional book I am writing. I’ve been told I should create an Advent devotional, so it will be available one day for a future Christmas!
Prayer changes everything. Therefore, the best way to make anything more meaningful is to include purposeful prayer in it. Here is a fun way to do it for Christmastide.
First, make a praise list of 12 items. Next, make also a prayer list of 12 items. For each of the 12 days of Christmas, focus wholeheartedly on going before the Lord in praise and then in petition for the specific items of the day.
Follow up each prayer time with a time of Bible reading, reflecting on what the Lord may be showing you. An option is to use the Scriptures below.
Christmastide Scripture Readings
What happened after the baby was born that wondrous night? The story of Christmas continues, and now you have 12 more days to reflect on the details. The King has arrived! Search for Him and get to know Him even more this season. Decide what the story really means to you. Are you living for Him like you say you are?
Below are suggested Scripture readings for Christmastide to lead you up to Epiphany. Each day, pour a mug of something warm, welcome peace, and let the light of Scripture glow. It will catch fire in your heart.
A Celebration of Light
Christmastide is a season to remember many blessings, such as the hope and joy we have in Christ. But I think during this time, it is helpful to focus on the blessing that can be depicted: the light that has dawned.
All Advent long, we wait in anticipation for the light to come into our darkness. At Christmas Eve service, we are told the light has arrived.
Here are ideas for how we can purposefully create a humble few days celebrating the arrival of our King, the light of the world. Take what you absolutely love, and let yourself be inspired to come up with your own ideas, too!
Remember, this is a time of the year to really bask in the wonder of what has been given to us. It is not a time to continue in the hurry-up-and-do mentality that has taken over December. Our King is the Prince of Peace. So, let us keep this transitional period smooth and gentle.
Christmastide is also a refreshing reminder of how to live as children of light, which we are to continue doing all the year through.
1) The King’s Lantern: a new Christmastide tradition
A lantern is the perfect Christian symbol for Christmastide just like the nativity or Advent wreath have become Christian symbols leading up to Christmas. This idea is based on Isaiah 9:2: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”
A regular lantern, painted white or gold, or white with gold (the church colors for the Christmas season) can appear in your home or on your porch at Christmas Eve and be a staple feature for the duration of the 12 days of Christmas. Put inside it your Christ candle from your Advent wreath or another white light. The light signifies the light that has come into the world. Those with a King’s lantern are declaring the light is in their home. As children of light, the light of Christ lights our path, and we will take it into the darkness with us wherever we go.
The King’s Lantern may also be an evangelism tool in that you have an opportunity to tell about the Light of the World when anyone asks what the lantern is all about.
2) Star-Led Traditions
The star that led the wise men to Jesus is the “star” of Christmastide.
If you plan to leave your tree up for some time, you can wait to add your star to the top of the tree until Christmas Eve.
Or, let the figures of your nativity continue to depict the story. Wait until Christmastide to add the wise men figures. Or, change the scene altogether. Put away the stable and build scenery in which to place the wise men meeting Mary, Joseph and the young child Jesus.
3) Visiting with Purpose
Do not try to cram all the visiting in before Christmas Day, or on Christmas Day! Christmas tends to spill over for a few days even in our culture anyway. You are also less likely to feel badly about waiting until after Christmas Day if you schedule a visit in advance, explaining that you want to be able to relax and spend time instead of rushing. A warm, meaningful time of love and fellowship will feel like Christmas really has not gone away yet.
In addition, in keeping with the theme of peace, do not add a burden to yourself or someone else. Simply take a pot of warm soup with you and some bread for a simple supper. Worry not with the elaborate feasts that you had to prepare, pay for, or find room for just recently.
To add a fun twist, you could plan “putz” visits. This idea came out the Moravian tradition of creating elaborate nativities with lots of scenery. Putz (pronounced “puts” and not “putts”) is from a German word that can mean “to trim or decorate.” Friends visit each other to see their nativity scenes.
A tip, if you have a toddler somewhere in your family, you can use them as a comparison for bringing attention to the biblical account of the wise men vising the child Jesus. Scholars believe the wise men did not visit the infant on the night he was born. Rather, they arrived days, months or even years later. Jesus' age was anywhere from an infant to a toddler.
When my son was only three months old last Christmas, I could look down at him sleeping in my arms and finally imagine more of what young Mary may have experienced so long ago. It helps!
4) The Christmastide Table
Within traditional churches, the paraments (colored fabric on pulpit, lectern and/or table/altar) in the sanctuary change from purple for Advent to white on Christmas Day, and they stay white through Epiphany. White symbolizes purity, holiness and virtue, and also respect and reverence. White is used for High Holy days of the Church Year, especially the Christmas and Easter seasons.
Consider exchanging your red and green tablecloth for a white one. And bring out the good dishes during Christmastide, for we are celebrating the arrival of our King. Your Christ candle from your Advent wreath, or your King’s Lantern, would make good centerpieces at the family dinner table during this time.
Remember, changes of scenery stand out in significance and can help usher in a new atmosphere in your home. The King is coming is different from the King has arrived.
5) Christmastide Décor
Do not feel the need to leave all your decorations up until Epiphany when you’re dealing with the return to work and school schedules in the middle of winter. But feel free to make de-decorating a more leisurely activity now that you know you have until January 6 before you’re “outdated.”
Or, consider exchanging one look for another to really impress the idea that everything is different now. Feature the Bethlehem star and the concept of the contrast of light with darkness. The best visual for this is the night sky. Replace the warm colors of your previous décor with the cool, crisp colors associated with a starlit night: white, silver, blue, violet and pink.
Minimal decorations are needed to achieve your goal because the starlit night is merely clear, still and bright. You could simply strip your Christmas tree down to just lights, and maybe add blue ribbon or star ornaments. You could go ahead and start removing all window decorations except for white lights. Star decorations also blend well with New Year’s Eve, so they will not look out of place when that night comes.
6) Incorporating the New Year’s Eve Celebration
Normally, New Year’s is the other bookend to the Christmas celebration of our culture, with Thanksgiving being the first. You probably do not want to skip over it, and it often feels awkward to still be focused on Christmas by the time New Year's arrives. Here’s how you can have both.
Again, the theme of stars and light matches New Year’s Eve celebrations. Sending out paper lanterns into the sky symbolic of the light beginning to spread is a nice touch. Sparklers and other fun lights can be used for teaching this, too.
In addition, you can superimpose your own beliefs onto this celebration if you like. One idea is that it could be a birthday party. God's creation is one year older from the moment God made time, and another year closer to the return of Christ. You could do a birthday cake or do the King Cake tradition on this day.
Another idea is to draw attention to the passage of time from the day Jesus was born. It is possible a year or maybe two passed before the wise men found Jesus, which will be celebrated in a few more days on Epiphany. In addition, as time goes on from the arrival of the King, changes are on the way. Winter will melt into spring, and new life will come, symbolic of spiritual truth.
Finally, in lieu of a New Year’s resolution, perhaps present a gift to Jesus like the wise men did. Making a commitment to Jesus to truly adopt a new practice or behavior glorifying to Him may mean more to you than a resolution for yourself that you rarely keep.
7) The Gifts of the Wise Men
In the past, gifts were exchanged on Epiphany to commemorate the gifts brought by the wise men to Jesus. Some people still do three gifts to be symbolic of the three things given to Jesus: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Consider reserving some of your Christmas gift-giving for Epiphany or Epiphany Eve. Remember, Jesus said that whatever we do for others, we do for Him. (Matt 25:40) In this way, giving in generosity to someone else is like giving a gift to Jesus.
If the thought of making Christmastide more meaningful has ignited excitement within you, you must check out the awesome family activities and traditions I am writing about that will bring the whole thing to life for everyone, opening up many teaching opportunities for the kids. That post is coming on the heels of this one, so subscribe to make sure you don't miss it!
Have a blessed Christmas season!
Meg Grimm is a Christian writer on a mission to bring the wonder and truth of fairy tales and folklore into modern life from a biblical perspective. She has authored several faith-based books exploring folk medicine.
1) The Jews have biblically-instituted feast days, too, and their yearly schedule can be good for a Christian to follow as well. But I have found that the liturgical church calendar, which is based on New Testament accounts, makes more sense to me personally. The Jewish feasts occur around the same times of year as our Christmas and Easter holidays, so some meaningful traditions from them can be brought into our activities if we wish it. Jewish feasts tell the story of Jesus as well.
2) Yes, Christian beliefs were once superimposed over existing pagan days of weather prediction, but this was a way to help the Anglo-Saxons fully convert and to teach them. To Christians, our holy days have been completely transformed from pagan traditions, though discerning Christians are still watchful that our activities remain in alignment with our faith.
3) There is nothing wrong with celebrating events in Christ’s life. A Christian may observe any day he wants, such as Epiphany, if he “does so to the Lord.” (Rom 14:4-6) Christians must just be careful to avoid superstitions or empty rituals.
“History of the Christmas Putz.” Perry, Candace. 18 Dec 2020. Accessed 19 Dec 2022: https://padutchcompanion.com/2020/12/18/history-of-the-christmas-putz/
“What is Epiphany / Three King’s Day?” Accessed 20 Dec 2022: https://www.gotquestions.org/three-kings-day-epiphany.html