Not just a rather strange song rejoicing in the delightful gifts of thirty lords a-leaping and forty-two geese a-laying (hey, that's what the math says), but an actual thing. The day we know as Christmas is, in fact, the first day of Christmas, which remains an independent season in the liturgy.
Christmas Eve Mass procession at Mount Calvary Church, 2013.
The liturgical year is arranged, roughly speaking, into three discrete sections, each one celebrating one of the profound mysteries in which all the doctrine and practice of the Church is rooted.* The first cycle celebrates the Incarnation; the second, the Redemption; the third, the Trinity. The subdivisions of these cycles are the seasons of the year: Advent, which leads up to Christmas, is the first (in the Roman liturgical year, used in the West -- I understand our brethren in the East, whether Orthodox or Catholics, calculate the year's cycle rather differently), then Christmas, and then Epiphany, of which more later on. Next comes the Redemption cycle, beginning with the preparatory season of Lent, which leads into Easter; at the close of Easter, and forming a sort of bridge into the next period, is the Octave of Pentecost. The third cycle opens with the Solemnity of the Trinity itself -- the Sunday after Pentecost -- and proceeds to the very end of the year, not falling into subdivisions so much as the others do, but incorporating a multitude of other feasts (especially the Solemnity of All Saints, which celebrates the coinherence of redeemed humanity in God just as Trinity celebrates the coinherence of the Godhead with Itself).
The twelve days of Christmas are as follows:
O little star of Bethlehem, holy crap an average star can easily be more than 800,00 miles across that is so cool.
December 25th. The Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. (This is a Holy Day of Obligation -- i.e., gotta get to Mass and also try to take the day off if at all possible, just like Sundays -- for U.S. Catholics. Some Obligation days are waived if they fall on a Saturday or a Monday, so as not to combine with the Sunday obligations; Christmas, I understand, is never waived, though of course this year it wouldn't make any difference.)
December 26th. The Feast of Saint Stephen Protomartyr. First dude to get wasted for being a Christian (see Acts 6.1-8.3 for the full story). It may seem strange to us to juxtapose the birth of Christ with the first death for Christ; I am sure it wouldn't have seemed that way to the early Church who buried Saint Stephen (although the Nativity didn't begin to be celebrated by most Christians until around the fourth century or so). They referred to the dates of the martyrs' deaths as their "birthdays," i.e. the day of their birth into the new life of Heaven -- I expect the combination of the one sort of birthday with the other would have pleased them a great deal.
December 27th. The Feast of Saint John the Apostle. The only one of the Apostles not to get murdered, though he is traditionally said to have been exiled to Patmos, a small island in the Aegean, where he was less able to make trouble (i.e., serve as a bishop) than he had been doing in Ephesus, to which he had emigrated from Palestine, perhaps some time in the 60s when the Jewish and Roman persecutions were heating up. (The only one of the Twelve who never left Palestine was Saint Matthew -- the former tax collector -- who was finally killed there.) He is usually identified with the Beloved Disciple of the Fourth Gospel, who is also usually identified with the author of that Gospel, and the author of I, II, and III John.
Modern scholarship tends to doubt that he is the same person who wrote Revelation, which was much debated in the primitive Church itself. The Apostle is also known as Saint John the Theologian or, in a somewhat archaic and in my opinion incredibly cool-sounding style, Saint John the Divine.**
December 28th. The Feast of the Holy Innocents. These were the children and infants massacred by Herod the Great sometime around 1 BC,*** as recounted in Matthew 2. Because they died for Christ, however unwittingly, the Holy Innocents are traditionally counted among the martyrs. The Coventry Carol is written about them, from the perspective of their bereaved mothers.
This is Sufjan Stevens' version, possibly my favorite.
December 29th. The Memorial of Saint Thomas Becket, Bishop and Martyr. Becket lived in the twelfth century, during the reign of King Henry II of England, with whom he was friendly for many years; Henry, having made him Chancellor, wished him also to be the Archbishop of Canterbury, to consolidate the government's power, both as such and over the possible rival influence of the Church. (This was, officially, after the end of the Investiture Controversy, but dealt with some of the same problems.) However, after being consecrated, Becket abruptly experienced a profound conversion: he resigned the chancellorship, devoted himself to the works of mercy and penance, and began defending the independence of the Church. Becket eventually fled into exile on the Continent, and was abroad for seven years; after he returned, and began making more trouble for Henry, four of the king's knights broke into Canterbury Cathedral as the saint was saying Vespers, surrounded him, and murdered him at the altar. T. S. Eliot's magnificent and timely play, Murder In the Cathedral, is a hybridized modern-verse/Greek-tragic structure play about the martyrdom.
December 30th. This day has no special character of its own, though, if there is no Sunday between Christmas Day and New Year's Day, December 30th is observed as the Feast of the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary, and Joseph). Otherwise, the Holy Family is celebrated on whatever Sunday immediately follows Christmas (including this date), which this year is the 28th.
December 31st. The Memorial of Saint Sylvester I, Pope. He oversaw the First Council of Nicaea in 325, and the deathbed conversion of the Emperor Constantine I. Apparently he is, or was, a super popular saint, particularly in Italy and central Europe: a lot of places use some variant of his feast-day's name as a synonym for New Year's Eve (in Germany and Austria, for instance, it's known as Silvesternacht).
January 1st. The Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. New Year's Day, of course, and in the pre-Vatican II calendar the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus (since it's eight days after Christmas); it is also, in the revised calendar, the Solemnity of the Mother of God. There are a lot of Marian feasts in the Catholic year, but this one is perhaps the most illustrious of all, because it celebrates that fact from which all the graces and miracles she received flow: the fact that she gave birth to Christ. (This is another Holy Day of Obligation.)
I have posted this before. It is uncommonly amazing.
January 2nd. The Memorial of Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzus. These two saints are much better known in the Christian East than they are here; both were great luminaries in the fight against the Arian heresy, and both, together with Saint Gregory of Nyssa, are known as the Cappadocian Fathers (because all three came from the region in Asia Minor called Cappadocia). Basil was bishop of the city of Caesarea, and laid the foundation for practically all Eastern monasticism; Gregory Nazianzus was for a time the Archbishop of Constantinople, and helped to convene the First Council of Constantinople, which confirmed and strengthened the decisions of Nicaea from fifty-six years before.
January 3rd. This is not generally kept as anything in particular, though it was the Memorial of Saint Genevieve, who in addition to having a pretty name has a fairly cool story. Check it out.
January 4th. The Memorial of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. She was a convert from Episcopalianism to Roman Catholicism, and took a lot of flak for it (this being the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, when tolerance, at any rate of Catholics, was not "in" in either Great Britan or the U.S., Charles Carroll notwithstanding). She was the foundress of a religious order and established America's first Catholic school, and in fact spent many years living and working right here in Baltimore: my own church, Mount Calvary, was received into the Catholic Church from the Episcopal Church in 2012, and has long looked on Mother Seton as one of our patronesses, which isn't hurt by the fact that we are at the northern extreme of the neighborhood of Seton Hill which bears her name.
My parish's first Corpus Christi procession after our reception into the
Catholic Church concluded at the St. Mary's Seminary Chapel in Seton Hill.
January 5th. This is the last day of Christmas proper, known also in some places as the Twelfth Night (from which Shakespeare's play gets its name). It is traditionally a day of merrymaking, especially eating and drinking -- the old beverage wassail, with its attendant carols, is specially associated with Twelfth Night. In New Orleans, Twelfth Night begins the Carnival season (from the Latin carni vale or "farewell to meat," since meat could not be eaten throughout Lent), which lasts until Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday. Most other places in the country, being either historically less Catholic or the grimmer sort of Catholic one finds in northern Europe instead of the Mediterranean, are correspondingly less fun about this.
January 6th. The Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ. This feast, being the first day after Christmas proper, represents the manifestation (hence epiphany, from the Greek for "shining forth") of the Son of God to the world, and especially the arrival and adoration of the Magi, and their bestowal of their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (The Magi are known traditionally by the names of Gaspar or Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, which have so far as I know no historical foundation but do sound awesome.) In Latino countries, gifts are generally exchanged on this day instead of on Christmas, and are brought by the Wise Men rather than Santa, which you have to admit makes a hell of a lot more sense.**** It is also linked, especially in the East (where it is called Theophany or "the manifestation of God"), with the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan, and with the miracle of the changing of the water into wine at Cana, that being the first of His miracles. This makes Epiphany, which in the Anglican Use is its own season, a natural bridge between the celebration of the Incarnation at Christmas, and the journey into His Passion and Resurrection at Easter.
Gentile da Fabriano, Adoration of the Magi (altarpiece), 1423, Florence
*This threefold division is of my own devising, and is primarily a way of understanding the Church's year to one's own edification -- not a doctrinal tool. The Church herself, at least in the standard practice of the Roman Rite, recognizes two basic divisions: Christ Our Light is celebrated in the first half of the year, in which Christmas is the apex, and Christ Our Life dominates the second half, with Easter as its apex. I have departed from this for illumination, not in dispute, partly because a slightly different and more archaic calendar is employed in the Anglican Use. One of the most marked differences between the two is that the Anglican Use preserves the Octave of Pentecost and treats it as a feast ranking with Christmas and Easter themselves, whereas this Octave (like many others) has been suppressed in most of the Roman Rite.
**I.e., not that he was elevated to deity, but that he was a student of divine things, i.e. theology, mysticism, etc. We retain a trace of this meaning of the word when we speak of someone having a degree in divinity; and there are still a few groups know by the title for historical reasons, such as the Caroline Divines. The term divination is related.
***The BC/AD system is, as we all know, fucked; not (as is sometimes thought) because there was no year 0, though that's also true, as because the monk who developed it, the awesomely named Dionysius Exiguus, got the numbering slightly wrong in the first place. This is one reason I actually don't mind the slightly silly but at least unarguable system of BCE/CE -- silly, because it still uses the Nativity as its point of reference, but just can't quite bring itself to admit as much.
****The myth of Santa Claus, or Saint Nick, is a dim and garbled recollection of Saint Nicholas Thaumaturgus, or Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker, who was famed for being extremely generous to the poor and to children, and also for punching Arius right in the face at the Council of Nicaea, because church used to be hardcore.
I love that "More images for 'saint nicholas punched arius in the face'" is a thing that Google suggested to me.