Today is the 12th day of Christmas although you'd never know that by looking at anything in the larger culture. In the larger culture, "the Christmas season" begins on Black Friday, the day following Thanksgiving when the traditional shopping season takes off in earnest. Radio stations play cheesy Christmas music. Homes are decorated. Christmas Lights go up and on. Christmas abruptly ends on December 26th as the leftovers go on sale and unwanted or wrong sized gifts are returned to stores. The cheesy music stops. Decorations begin to come down. Life goes back to normal.
The Church calendar is very different. Beginning with the 4th Sunday prior to Christmas Day, we observe Advent. It is a contemplative and even penitential time when Christians are supposed to prepare their hearts to receive the very presence of God in our midst. The traditional color for church paraments is purple, the same as Lent, although in more recent years some churches have moved to blue, emphasizing that the penitence of Advent isn't exactly the same as that of Lent. Still, it is a time of penitence and not celebration. The music is hopeful but perhaps a bit somber in that it struggles with the realities that surround us even as it looks forward to the new kindom, yet to be established. Scriptures in the lectionary are full of promise not yet filled full. It is a time of pregnancy, not of birth. Christmas carols aren't to be sung until Christmas Eve and then continue through the 12 days of Christmas which end on January 5, the day before Epiphany.
Every year I struggle through these times. I want to use the season of Advent as a time of spiritual preparation rather than an orgy of commercialism. I don't want to sing "Joy to the World" and I certainly don't want to sing, "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" when I need to be wrestling with the needs and brokenness around me. Then when Christmas does arrive, I want to sing those songs of joy and wonder in response even while I continue to hope for that which is not yet. Needless to say, there are folk in my church who want to sing Christmas Carols during the time they have experienced as "the Christmas Season" all of their lives - Black Friday through December 25. And then when December 26th comes, they're tired of Christmas.
Most years, I choose a few carols to sing on the 4th Sunday of Advent and through the 12 days of Christmas but it just doesn't feel right. I want to observe Advent and then Christmas.
I know that the liturgical calendar is artificial. It doesn't appear in the Bible and indeed, Jesus wasn't born on December 25 anyway. Depending on how cynical you are, the date was either chosen to co-opt a pagan holiday or as a theological statement of the Light of the World coming into the world precisely when it was at its darkest (at least in the northern hemisphere). Still, the liturgical calendar is helpful for me. It imposes a rhythm into the year for me that is theologically formed and informed. It reminds me to frame my experiences in terms of God's activities through history.
Christmas ends today... so I don't have to struggle with the questions for another 10 months or so. I hope your 12 days of Christmas were filled with blessings and gifts of love.