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Scott P. Richert

Reader Question: Giving Gifts and the Twelve Days of Christmas

By December 19, 2008

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A reader writes:

When I was living in Sicily, they seemed not to give Christmas gifts at Christmas time, but somewhere just after the New Year. Do you know when and why that would be? And what does the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas" have to do with Christmas?

At first glance, these two questions might seem unrelated (and perhaps the reader intended them that way). But in fact, the answer to both is tied up with one of the great feasts of the liturgical year, and I'm not talking about Christmas. The feast in question is the Epiphany of Our Lord (January 6), and it marks the end of what is known as Christmastide--the main portion of the Christmas season.

Christmastide runs from Christmas Day until the evening of January 5--a period of 12 days. It is those Twelve Days of Christmas that are commemorated in the song.

In England and her historical colonies, the custom has long been to give gifts on Christmas Day itself. But in Italy and other Mediterranean countries, Christians continue the older tradition of exchanging gifts on Epiphany--the day on which the Wise Men brought their gifts to the Christ Child.

In Northern Europe, the two traditions have often been combined, with gift-giving on both Christmas and Epiphany (though, in the past, the main gift-giving day in both Northern and Eastern Europe was often the feast of Saint Nicholas). And in the United States in recent years, some Catholics have tried to revive the fullness of Christmastide. Our family, for instance, opens gifts "from Santa" on Christmas Day, and then, on each of the 12 days of Christmas, the children receive one small gift, before we open all of our gifts to one another on Epiphany (after attending Mass for the feast).

It's a wonderful way to remind ourselves that Christmas has only just begun on Christmas Day, and to celebrate all 12 days of Christmas!

More on Epiphany and the Twelve Days of Christmas:

If you have a question that you would like to have featured in our "Reader Questions" series, send me an e-mail at catholicism.guide@about.com. Be sure to put "QUESTION" in the subject line, and please note whether you'd like me to address it privately or on the Catholicism blog.

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