We work hard during Advent to prepare for the birth of Christ. But we often spend much less time celebrating once Jesus is born. The festivities are usually confined to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. This year, here are 12 ways you can celebrate the 12 days of Christmas (December 25-January 6) both in the church and with your family.
What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
In the book Worship is a Verb: Celebrating God’s Mighty Deeds of Salvation, Robert E. Webber likens Advent to a time when we anticipate a special guest coming to visit our home. Much hard work and preparation spans several weeks. The burden of that work, however, is offset by the hopeful expectancy of spending time with someone special: the 12 days of Christmas. Webber explains,
“Christmas is a season of joy, festivity, and fun. It’s a 12-day festival from December twenty-fifth to January sixth, the day of Epiphany. And our spiritual experience during this time should be similar to that of enjoying a visit from someone special. It is a time of celebration, of singing Christmas carols, of giving and receiving gifts, of enjoying fellowship with friends and loved ones…during this time we are truly alive and free in the presence of our Guest. And the good news of Jesus Christ deserves a shout, a party, a frolic!” (pp. 159-160)
Celebrating the 12 Days of Christmas in Your Church
1. Plan an evening of "putz" visiting.
A putz evening is when you visit the homes of friends or family to see their creche or nativity sets.
Moravian families set up their creche sets with scenery. They are called “putz,” meaning “to decorate.” Friends visit each others’ homes to see the scenes. Compile a list of names and addresses of people in your congregation who are willing to share their nativity scenes or creches with others. Designate a time and date and visit each others’ homes to enjoy all the ways there are of representing the birth of Christ. Include a reading of the story of St. Francis of Assisi and the first nativity scene. One book suggestion is Saint Francis Celebrates Christmas (Loyola Press, 1988). This could be done at church on the Sunday following Christmas. Or ask people to bring their nativity scenes to church. Have them set up their creche in a display area and everyone can take a tour and share some festive treats.
2. Celebrate with a parade.
In Alaska children carry a star figure from house to house. They sing carols and enjoy the treats that are given to them along the way. In Germany and Austria, the parades include stars on poles and hay for camels. In Puerto Rico people enjoy a Bethlehem Day parade. In many countries a Three Kings parade is held. Bells are used in Africa and in other countries all over the world to express Christmas joy. For your parade, designate three kings with colorful costumes, or make large wise men puppets to lead the procession. Provide crowns for all participants, or make banners and carry them on standards. Distribute a variety of costumes relating to Christ’s birth for participants to wear, or have the parade reflect angels praising God or shepherds sharing the good news (sing “Go Tell It on the Mountain!”). Distribute bells and use them as part of your parade as well.
3. Read an alternative story about the wise men.
Read, tell, or dramatize a story about the visit of the wise men. The Other Wise Man, by Henry Van Dyke, tells the story of another wise man who is delayed by the kind deeds he does on his journey to find the newborn king. The Legend of Old Befana, by Tomie dePaola is an Italian version of a Russian folk tale about the wise men. In the story a key character misses an opportunity to travel with the wise men to see the Savior because she is too busy with other responsibilities. As a result she spends the rest of her life searching for the child and giving gifts to children whom she meets along the way.
4. Go Christmas caroling.
Christmas caroling isn’t just for before Christmas; it’s for during Christmas, too.
We usually confine this activity to Advent. Plan your caroling event during the 12 days of Christmas. Arrange to share refreshments at a few homes and to take time to celebrate Christ’s birth.
5. Have a Christmas party following a worship service.
Celebrate Christmas with your church family after church on Sunday.
Plan refreshments and games or activities for a Sunday after Christmas. Or break into groups, each of which will briefly plan a way for the whole group to celebrate, using a theme which relates to one of the main characters of the birth of Christ. Then allow each group to lead their celebration. Have a birthday party for Jesus. Some churches have an Epiphany party each year. One theme for the party is new ways to see things. For example, use a kaleidoscope for an activity. Have a few people share stories of ways in which God has redirected their lives. End the party with everyone taking a new way home from church.
6. Present an Epiphany pageant.
Celebrating the 12 Days of Christmas with Your Family
7. Play "Name that Christmas Carol."
Using an instrument or a recording, play the beginning notes of Christmas carols, allowing the participants to guess the names of each. After the name is revealed, sing a verse or two before giving the next clue. Members of the group could also take turns humming clues to get everyone involved.
8. Sing "The 12 Days of Christmas."
Make up your own version of this song. Begin with the gift of Jesus and then add angels, shepherds, and all of the other participants in the birth of Christ.
9. Open your Christmas gifts throughout the 12 days of Christmas.
Take the time to treasure each gift you receive.
This may be extremely hard for young children to do, but it would give you the opportunity to treasure each gift you receive. Wrap a box containing a word or a Bible verse that describes a gift Jesus gives us (i.e., love, joy, salvation). Open this with the other gifts each day, or use it as an alternative gift to open on each of the 12 days of Christmas.
10. Look through your Christmas cards together.
Have each family member find a favorite shepherd, the most joyous angel, the nativity scene that touches you the most, the most unusual wise men, or whatever other categories you choose.
11. Set aside a special family day.
You could bake some Christmas treats as a family on your day together.
Plan an activity to do together as a family. Go on an outing, view Christmas decorations around your area, go to a museum to see a seasonal display, attend a Christmas concert or other performance, have a video festival of meaningful Christmas movies at home, plan to do special baking after Christmas as an act of celebration, or choose any other activity that allows you to set aside time to feel the joy of Christ’s birth.
If possible, use the candles in your Advent wreath and then keep adding more around the room or house during your meal or in the evening. Be aware of the light that the birth of Christ brings to you and how it can become brighter and brighter in our lives.
12. Host an Epiphany party to celebrate the visit of the magi.
Epiphany (traditionally on January 6) commemorates the visit of the magi and is sometimes called Three Kings’ Day. It is also the final day of the 12 days of Christmas. To honor Epiphany, consider holding a party.
Here’s some ways you might remember this important day.
Make a King’s Cake or a Twelfth Night Cake. Before baking, it is traditional to hide a coin, trinket, or dried bean inside the batter. The person who finds it becomes the king or queen for the evening. There are many different recipes to use for this; some are like fruitcake or are spice cakes. The following is a French version.
French Epiphany Cake
(Source: Festivals, Family and Food, by Cary, Diana, and Judy Large. Gloucestershire, England: Hawthorn Press, 1982, p.154.)
8 oz. butter
3 oz. ground rice
grated rind of lemon
6 egg yolks
5 oz. sifted icing sugar
3 egg whites
3 oz. flour
extra sifted icing sugar
- Cream butter and grated lemon rind. Beat in icing sugar.
- Sift flour and ground rice together, add one third of this to the creamed mixture.
- Add two of the egg yolks and repeat with remaining flour and yolks.
Fold in the stiffly whisked whites and turn into a prepared tin.
- Bake at 350º for about an hour, Decorate with lemon butter icing or sifted sugar. Top the cake with little figures of the three kings or with crowns or stars.
Be sure to go outside on Epiphany, the twelfth night, to look at the stars or to take a long walk and celebrate the important journey the wise men took to recognize the Christ Child as their King.
Play “Hide and Seek the Light.” One person can hide a battery-run or electric candle, while other players wait in a closed room (they could sing or play Christmas carols to cover up any sound clues). When the light is hidden, the players look for it, like the wise men who followed the star, searching for the birthplace of the Savior. This game can also be played by placing glow-in-the-dark stars in an obvious place on the skin or clothing of all players. The player who is “it” searches for the other hiding players. This can be played inside or outside, depending on your climate.
Remember what Christmas is truly about
At the conclusion of The Frugal Gourmet Celebrates Christmas, Jeff Smith writes:
“We want peace and quiet and perfection in entertaining. The Bible wants peace, and that means fulfillment for all persons, not just lack of war. In the midst of the darkest night of the year we have attempted to turn the Christmas into our holiday of light, dependent upon our own successes, but that is not the meaning of Christmas. We suffer from Post-Christmas Depression because on our own, Christmas does not work. It is not the tree, or the dinner or the planning, or the weather, or the relatives that make the Mass of Christ. It is the Child. Come to the manger and be amazed. God is confessing His/Her love for us. How utterly amazing. God comes to us as the Baby in swaddling clothes.” (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1991, p. 279)
Continuing the celebration of Christ’s birth throughout the 12 days of Christmas is one way of focusing on the child. This will also lead you to Epiphany and a more joyful celebration as the amazing acts of Christ are revealed throughout the season.
Colleen Aalsburg Wiessner
Colleen Aalsburg Wiessner was an assistant professor in the department of adult and higher education at North Carolina State University. She was an active member of the Reformed Church in America and served for many years on the denomination's Council for Christian Education. Colleen passed away in 2009, but her work on articles and resources like this one continues to serve the church today.