The Nativity of Christ is the second most prominent feast in the Orthodox Church’s liturgical calendar after the Pascha, and as such, it is celebrated over many days. During Christmas time, the all-merciful Lord continues to shed on us generously His goodness and grace. Twelvetide is translated as ‘holy days’ and refers to a specific part of the Christmas period. An old name for Twelvetide is ‘holy nights’. Perhaps it was called this way because Christians viewed them as the time for leaving aside their daily work and dedicating it to glorifying the birth of our Lord and His Baptism.
Let us look more closely at the history of Twelvetide.
In the first centuries of Christianity, the Church celebrated only one great feast at this time of year. It was the Theophany, also known as the Baptism of the Lord. It commemorated the Nativity and the Baptism of Christ together.
Starting from the 4th century, the Church has celebrated these two prominent events in Jesus’ worldly life separately – the Nativity on 25 December (7 January), and the Theophany on 6 January (19 January old style). However, in the minds of the Orthodox faithful these holidays are still inseparable, and the twelve days between them constitute one uninterrupted feast. Similarly, we commemorate forty days from the Resurrection of the Lord to His Ascension, during which He continued to appear before His disciples.
The Russian name of the Twelvetide – Svyatki – derives from the words “light” and “divinity”.
The feast of the Nativity does not end on Christmas day on 7 January. It is followed by the feast of the Synaxis of the Most Holy Theotokos on 8 January. On the Sunday of 10 January, we commemorate the holy ancestors of the Lord – the Righteous Joseph the Betrothed, Holy Righteous David the King, and James the Brother of the Lord who accompanied the Holy Family on their flight to Egypt. On 11 January we honour the 14,000 Infants (Holy Innocents) slain by Herod at Bethlehem. The Apodosis (conclusion) of the Nativity is on 13 January just before the Circumcision of the Lord. But the festive days continue beyond this date. Nativity celebrations end only on the feast of the Theophany on 19 January, preceded by the eve of Theophany, a day of strict fasting.
Twelvetide is for celebration. The faithful should suspend their daily affairs as much as possible to reflect on the great mystery of Christ’s advent for the sake of our salvation. Regular fasting days – Wednesdays and Fridays – are not observed during Twelvetide. Priests are often asked by their flock: “How do we take Communion on the feast of the Theophany with no fast?” Traditions and interpretations vary. However, most fathers will tell you that for Christians who live the life of the Church and fast, food restrictions before taking communion are unnecessary during Twelvetide. Even the Typicon says so. No-one, of course, should see this as an excuse for drunkenness, gluttony, or debauchery. We should always use reason. Worshippers only observe the Eucharistic fast by not having anything to eat or drink from the midnight of the day of the Communion.
Also, it is not allowed to make deep bows at home or at church. As we read in the Typikon of Saint Sabas the Sanctified, “Noone shall fast, or make deep bows at Church or in their cell”.
The faithful should refrain from doing any work, except for the most essential chores, such as cooking meals, caring for animals or doing other jobs that they cannot delay. Starting a big project and or performing non-essential works are not advised. This does not apply to those for whom performing such works is a part of their professional duty.
We are called to celebrate Twelvetide with meaning.
By virtue of His Nativity, our Lord shed on us His divine blessing, and we are responsible for passing it on, during the feast and throughout the year. Our first and foremost task is to praise and glorify the birth of Christ, by visiting each other as guests, singing Christmas carols and religious chants, participating in Christian worship and doing works of charity, including visiting the sick, the prisoners, the elderly and the orphans, and aiding generously all those who need our help.
Christ is born – glorify Him.
Meet the Lord coming from Heaven.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds