It’s a bit of a cliché to observe that the Christmas season seems to be growing longer and longer each year, slowly edging its way into store displays and advertisements before the cold air of winter has even arrived to make heavy jackets truly necessary. Readers of Celebrating the 12 Days of Christmas soon discover, though, that for the Chris Marchand, the problem is more that the very idea of Christmas as a season has fallen by the wayside—a liturgical season, that is. Marchand, an Anglican minister and writer (among other things), has penned this book in order to both delve into the varied traditions of the liturgical season and its feast days and to foster the revival of its celebration by offering readers suggestions for renewing the practices of old in ways that make sense for today.
Readers of Celebrating the 12 Days of Christmas looking for explorations of common conceptions—and misconceptions—surrounding the Christmas season will not be disappointed. Marchand delves into topics such as how Christmas came to be traditionally celebrated on December 25th in the first place, along with other festive matters like how the playful carol “The 12 Days of Christmas” originated (pp. 9-18). Subsequent portions of the book delve into the roots of the feast days that occur during the Christmas season itself. One of the more fascinating dimensions of this work is the glimpse it gives readers of the sheer variety of ways the Christmas season has been brought to life by various cultures throughout space and time. From the pre-Christmas activities associated with St. Lucia’s day in Scandinavian parts of the world to the rather more foreboding traditions of other communities (ahem, Krampus), the variations may not be endless, but they’re certainly impressive—and not always especially jolly (pp. 58-60, 67).
This would pose no problem if the aim of Celebrating the 12 Days of Christmas was strictly historical in nature, but as the book’s subtitle itself suggests, Marchand desires to accomplish more than just take readers on a festive tour through the past. He wants to shift how they enter into the season today, and therefore this book’s pages are filled with intensely practical ideas for how to celebrate the season in various ways. In the spirit of this aim, Marchand urges his audience to ask themselves as they read, “I wonder how I can make this work in my community?” (p.2). And indeed, one of Marchand’s points is that the celebration of the Christmas season is meant to bring us out of isolation and into worship, celebration, service, and rest together with the rest of our community—regardless of how exactly small or large that community is (pp.2-5).
There are all sorts of Christmas traditions from over the span of Christian history worth reviving, yet there are far too many for any single faith community to realistically all dive into (xvi). For the community leader reading Celebrating the 12 Days of Christmas and finding herself in this sort of predicament, Marchand’s encouragement is that, “The liberating message of this book is that while we strive for faithfulness to our traditions, we are nonetheless free to adapt them into new forms and even invent some traditions of our own” (xvi). For me this question of how to engage with the past in a spirit of creative fidelity raised in this book gets near the heart of the matter not just when it comes specifically to highlighting Christmas as a liturgical season, but also the broader task of doing theology itself.
Will Marchand succeed in bringing about his Christmas revolution? I certainly hope so, but it will not come about without overcoming a few challenges. As Marchand himself explains, many worshipping communities (at least of the Protestant variety) are uncomfortable or at least unfamiliar with the saints’ days of the church year, which comprise an important aspect of the Christmas season (pp.94-95). As Joan Chittister puts it in The Liturgical Year, though, the “feasts of Christmastide give us a great deal more than a manger. They give us, as adults, models to live by if we, too, are to be steeped in Jesus and full of new life” (p. 91). In summary, though, reviving the celebration of the 12 days of Christmas seems to face the same bumps in the road encountered by other similar efforts to bring back increased participation by faith communities in the liturgical calendar.
The time of year surrounding Christmas day is also already quite busy for many people. As Marchand again himself points out, Christmas may be a wonderful time of year, but it’s sadly often a time when we are even more frenzied and rushed than usual (p.xi). That’s why one of the practical suggestions of the book is to rest. As Marchand puts it, “the ’12 days of Christmas’ is not about 12 days of unending celebration… a lot of restful downtime is implied in the 12 days” (pp.xiv-xv). Compelling ourselves to slow down in our frantic consumer world is hard enough, but if readers are persuaded by this book, that may actually be a reason to lean into the 12 days of Christmas rather than to avoid them. The idea is to lean into the meaningful aspects the season “while managing somehow to feel less busy” (p.69).
The days of the Christmas season have the potential—much like all the other parts of the liturgical year—to provide a place of encounter where we can be formed in the love of God and brought into deeper connection with both God and each other. Marchand’s Celebrating the 12 Days of Christmas is a lovely piece of both historical depth and practical breadth. It makes for a fitting read during this holiday season, and I can happily recommend it.
Disclosure: Chris Marchand is a friend. I’m also dearly fond of the man Chris had such long discussions regarding the “corrupted” origins of Christmas with—Petr Michlik. However, the opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review.