"On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me a partridge in a pear tree." Thus begins the song that we sing around Christmas time. The first verse is repeated after each of the succeeding 11 verses until the gift of twelve drummers drumming.
It is estimated that the price of 12 days of gifts is $23,439 in 2010, an increase of $1,974 from last year. If your true love repeats all 12 verses, the price jumps to $96,824 for a total of 364 gifts.
The Twelve Days of Christmas are not the twelve days before Christmas, but in most of the Western Church are the twelve days from Christmas until the beginning of the season of Epiphany. Epiphany is usually celebrated as the time the Wise Men or Magi arrived to present gifts to the young Jesus (Matt. 2:1-12).
There are many customs around Epiphany. In many cultures it is the Epiphany cake containing a trinket or bean. The person who finds it in their piece of cake becomes the king or queen of the feast. In Spain and some Latin American countries shoes are left out so the kings will leave gifts like candy or money inside. The shoes are often filled with hay for the horses or camels of the kings.
In Greece and Cyprus the customs revolve around the Great Blessing of the Waters. It marks the end of the traditional ban on sailing, as the rough winter seas are cleansed of the goblins that try to torment God-fearing Christians through the festive season.
In certain parts of southern India the epiphany is called the three kings festival and celebrated in front of the church like a fair. Families come together and cook sweet rice porridge called Pongal.
St. Matthew tells us that when the wise men arrived in Bethlehem to visit Jesus, they found him and his mother in a house, not the stable where they had found their first temporary shelter. Some believe that this is a cue to us that our Epiphany celebration should focus on our own houses. Thus it is a very old custom to bless houses on Epiphany.
The parish priest blesses chalk that is taken home by families to mark the doors of their homes. With all members of the household gathered outside, the initials of the legendary names of the wise men (Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar) are written with the blessed chalk on the door or the lintel of the house, framed by the numbers of the new year, in this way: 20 C+ M + B +11.
Everyone then enters the house. In some places it is customary to cross the threshold with the right foot first, thus starting the year out "on the right foot." Once inside, everyone gathers for the blessing of the house.
Since there were three gifts, we commonly think of three Magi. Although the biblical account leaves them anonymous, we have named them. Regardless of the number or the names, we understand that their principal role is to point to Jesus and to make others aware of who He is.
The story of the Magi reminds us that despite his humble beginning, Jesus would become known and worshipped throughout the world. He is the Savior who would bring salvation to all people.
Let us be mindful of this focus during this season and always.
[Taken with permission from "Monday Morning in North Georgia," Dec. 27, 2010. North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church.]