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Commentary: Lords a-leaping or a leap of faith?

This article appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 24, 2010 - It's typical these days to encounter "The 12 Days of Christmas" in our culture: an uncountable number of musical variations (including the cast of "Glee" and "Winnie the Pooh," go figure), CNN challenges to video each of the 12 gifts, analyses of the cost of the gifts, and so on.

What's missing is the why: Why are these 12 days called out, and what's their significance? Why 12? When does the 12-day countdown begin? Is it just a nonsense song about trying to buy love (sorry, Beatles) with a succession of greater and greater gifts?

Or, is it something more?

I learned quite a bit about the 12 days as I researched my novel. It turns out that the 12 days of Christmas have more to do with the historical Nativity of 2,000 years ago than it does with shopping at Nordstrom's for three French hens.

The original 12 days of Christmas are tied to the Feast of the Epiphany. In Christian religions, the Epiphany is the day that the baby Jesus was revealed to the world as the Son of God. The very word epiphany comes from the ancient Greek word epiphaneia and can be translated to mean appearance, manifestation or shining forth. The anglicized version became epiphany.

Early Christians seem to have fixated upon the date of Jan. 6 as the date of the original Epiphany. Thus, with some quick math, we can see that the Epiphany comes 12 days after the birth of Christ on Dec. 25. Put it all together, and it's easy to understand why the 12 days of Christmas would be commemorated in song. (Note that the Eastern churches and other religions' calendars vary a bit on the precise date and meaning, when the 12 days begin or conclude. My vantage point is Western Christianity.)

But there are more to the 12 days and the Feast of the Epiphany than a simple measurement of the time it took until the Magi knocked on the manger door. Certainly, over the years Christians have attached religious symbols to each of the gifts mentioned in the song: Ten lords a-leaping, for instance, can be interpreted to mean the Ten Commandments. But to me, those metaphors seem a bit forced and miss the bigger question: What do the 12 days, and the associated Epiphany, mean to believers in the Christian faiths?

The 12 days do indeed count the magi's journey from the east to Bethlehem; but their trip is a journey of faith, a 12-day quest to encounter the divine. The magi follow a symbol in the sky for 12 days across the harsh desert in search of an answer to the mystery of the burning star of Bethlehem. The magi were not from Israel, so their journey and subsequent homage to the child of God is interpreted to be the revelation of a divine being to the entire world. It was a true leap of faith for these men to begin a difficult adventure into the unknown in search of truth and answers.

Could we be so bold today? If we pause to set aside all the lovely images we associate with the Nativity and the magi, and consider the dangerous reality of their holy mission, we cannot help but be impressed. It must have been a long, arduous, and trying expedition to make. An excellent poem by T.S. Eliot, "The Journey of the Magi," eloquently captures the drama and challenge of such a daunting undertaking. The magi's 12-day journey was a test of faith, strength, and courage, a fitting trial for three men who would eventually come face to face with God.

On Christmas day, after the presents are unwrapped and the holiday hubbub has diminished, take a moment to ponder that the true season of Christmas is just beginning on Dec. 25. Consider that just over 2,000 years ago, brave men conquered the desert -- and their fears -- to make perhaps the most important journey of all time. And don't let Jan. 6 be just another Thursday on your calendar: Remember it and honor it as the day that the majesty and power of God were revealed to us all.

Paul Harrington is a writer and author of "Epiphany: The Untold Epic Journey of the Magi," a historical fiction novel that tells the tale of the magi's amazing adventures on their journey to Bethlehem. Visit https://www.epiphany-site.com to learn more.