How 12 days of Christmas get counted

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Artwork by Mary Heckman depicts the three wise men. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Artwork by Mary Heckman depicts the three wise men.

From Jesus' birth to Feast of the Epiphany

Tradition says the trio’s names were Gaspar the Greek, Melchoir the Hindu and Balthasar the Egyptian.

Next verse: “Bearing gifts we traverse afar.”

They carried with them gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Continuing: “Field and fountain, moor and mountain.”

Theirs’ was a 12-day journey, again according to tradition.

And finally, “Following yonder star.”

As stated in the Bible, the star led them to a manger, where the newborn baby Jesus waited. And this day is now celebrated as the Feast of the Epiphany, the day the Wise Men presented their gifts to Jesus — the 12th day of the 12 days of Christmas. And Twelfth Night, the beginning of Mardi Gras.

Seems like a heavy schedule for one calendar day, right? Today is the fourth of the 12 days of Christmas, which begins with the day on which Christ’s birth is celebrated.

“Although the Bible doesn’t say exactly when the Magi visited the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, it is clear that it is soon after his birth,” says the Rev. Paul D. Counce, pastor of the Cathedral of St. Joseph. “The Feast of the Epiphany takes place 12 days after Christmas Day. That’s the origin of the 12 days of Christmas.”

Hopkins’ carol refers to Christ’s visitors as three kings, though there is no documentation that they were kings. They also are called Magi, which, in this case, would reference astrologers.

“They were definitely wise,” Counce says. “They were astrologers who were seeking the truth. But they were not believers … So, this was Jesus’ first outreach to nonbelievers, and they presented him with gold, frankincense and myrrh. And this is the religious meaning behind gift giving.”

The Three Wise Men’s mode of transportation traditionally has been depicted as camel, which would take much longer than modern transportation.

Twelve days, perhaps?

Catholic churches remain decorated for Christmas during the 12 days.

“Now, here in Louisiana, the 12th night is the first day of Carnival season, which begins in New Orleans with the Twelfth Night Revelers’ Mardi Gras ball,” Counce says. “They are the second oldest Mardi Gras krewe in New Orleans, the oldest being the Krewe of Comus.”

New Orleans Carnival’s finalé belongs to the Mistick Krewe of Comus, which stages its ball on Mardi Gras Night.

Carnival ends when Ash Wednesday ushers in the Lenten season. Lent ends on Easter.

“We celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany a little bit more in Louisiana and New Orleans than other places,” Counce says. “But different places in the world observe it in different ways. In Latin countries, it’s a traditional day for gift giving. In Poland, it’s a traditional day of blessing houses and bread.”

These days, Catholic churches in the United States don’t always observe the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6.

“It’s usually observed on the Sunday closest to the Epiphany,” Counce says. “But don’t worry. The Twelfth Night Revelers know how to count, and they will kick off the Mardi Gras season on the Feast of the Epiphany.”