The twelve days of Christmas are more than a song. They are the keeping, the remaining, the staying, of Christmas. It is not moving on, but staying and gazing, wondering, worshiping.
Christmas, in the church year, begins on Christmas Day, and completes on Jan 5. Jan 6 is Epiphany. The observance had its origins in the Eastern Christian Churches and was a general celebration of the manifestation of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. It included the commemoration of his birth; the visit of the Magi (“Wise Men”, as Magi were Persian wisemen) to Bethlehem; all of Jesus’s childhood events, up to and including his baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist; and even the miracle at the Wedding of Cana in Galilee. It seems fairly clear that the Baptism was the primary event being commemorated.
God in flesh is the burden of the twelve days of Christmas. God one of us. God as us. God among us.
In the liturgical communions, the Twelve Days of Christmas include three feasts, that of St. Stephen (12/26), the first Christian martyr. In remembering his death, we are recalling that Jesus himself came to die and that many who have followed him have given their lives in witness to his light. There is also the Feast of St. John(12/27), who reminds us in chapter one of his gospel that the Word became flesh and we beheld his glory. On 12/28 there is the Commemoration of the Holy Innocents, those infants slaughtered by King Herod in a fit of paranoia.
And then there is the Feast of the Holy Name on 1/1, on the eighth day after the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the day our Lord was circumcised. This reminds us of the Jewishness of Jesus and that salvation is of the Jews, as Jesus himself said. This is a fitting way to start the New Year, reminding ourselves that Jesus has the name which is above all names.
1/6 is Epiphany. Here we remember the visit of the Magi to worship the Christ. There is a completeness to the nativity, for even the Gentile nations come to worship the Christ child. Jesus is Jewish and the fulfillment of promises made to Israel, but he has come for all peoples.
Thus we complete the Christmas season. Soon we will be on our way to the cross with Ash Wednesday and Lent beginning on Feb 22. Cradle and Cross. These are poles around which the Christ story turns. We embed these stories in time, on calendar, year by year, lest we forget that Christ has entered time and changed days and weeks and months and years into the Last Days, the visitation of our God, who will return again.