You're thinking of the 12 Days of Christmas.

By Jelisa Castrodale
September 26, 2019

At just after 10:45 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on Wednesday, September 26, British DJ Scott Mills played BBC Radio 1's first Christmas song of this year. Read that sentence again. We're less than a week into fall, and this guy forced his entire audience to listen to Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You," for the first of, what, dozens of times to come? Possibly hundreds, depending on how often you're exposed to Love Actually?

I'll admit that I didn't hate it-hate it—as Christmas songs go, that one slaps—but it was just an early-season reminder that the holidays are about to be forced on us, hard. Some big-box retailers have already put some decorations on their shelves and my own inbox has already been hit with a dozen-plus emails promoting holiday parties, food and cocktail recipes, and this year's assortment of specialty advent calendars, the ones filled with miniature bottles of booze, or cheese, or chocolate (or coffee, or jerky or…)

But because we're still 90 days from Christmas, this is a good time to remind everyone—especially those of us who will eat our way through December—that there's a difference between advent and the 12 days of Christmas. If your advent calendar just has a dozen doors, it's doing the holidays wrong.

Advent—a word that we borrowed from the Latin term for 'arrival'—is a four-week period that, for Christians, counts down until the arrival of Jesus Christ. No one is 100% sure when they started this end-of-the-year countdown, but circa-5th-century monks started fasting in late November, not in preparation for Christmas, but for the arrival of Epiphany. (More on that in a sec.) A century later, Christians started associating advent with Jesus, but they used the time period to consider his second coming; it wasn't until the Middle Ages that advent was connected with anticipation of Christmas and the birth of Christ.

"Advent is a season of preparation—it actually mirrors Lent in some ways, but it’s less intense on the repentance and fasting," Rev. Sarah Howell-Miller, a United Methodist pastor, told Food & Wine. "In Advent, the church remembers not only Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem but also the exile of Israel and the ancient Jews waiting for the arrival of the Messiah. Where I see real value in the practice of observing Advent as preparation is in the potential for solidarity with people in different kinds of exile and anticipation today."

For the modern Christian church, advent begins on Advent Sunday, which is the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Since December 25 falls on a different day of the week every year, the dates of advent can shift too; this year, advent begins on Sunday, December 1.

For more secular, purely celebratory purposes, advent begins on December 1 and stretches through Christmas. That makes a "standard" advent calendar a little easier to follow, to reuse and, of course, to sell. (It's worth noting that the first advent calendars with a little piece of chocolate tucked behind every door were sold by Cadbury in 1958).

"In a lot of places, Advent either doesn’t exist—it gets eclipsed by Christmas starting the day after Halloween—or is basically the countdown to Santa. I also think it’s funny that Advent calendars often include 24 or 25 days, when the actual number of days in Advent varies year to year," Howell-Miller said. "I guess if you have extra candy or jerky or whatever at the end of Advent, then Merry Christmas indeed, but if you run out because, like in 2016, Advent can be 28 days long, well…that sucks."

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By contrast, the Twelve Days of Christmas aren't a holiday countdown—in fact, that time period doesn't even start until Christmas, and it stretches until Epiphany on January 6. Christians consider this to be the day that the trio of Magi rolled up to the manger, carrying their (slightly age-inappropriate) royal gifts for a newborn. And, as both religious scholars and theater majors will mention, Epiphany can also be called "Twelfth Night." (Depending on the church, sometimes Twelfth Night and its associated celebrations are observed on January 5.) The point being, those 12 days mark an entirely different advent, if you will, to a different arrival.

So no, the two terms aren't interchangeable. If your so-called "advent" calendar only has a dozen tiny doors, then technically you shouldn't start opening it until Christmas Day, because technically it's an Epiphany countdown calendar. On the bright side, that means that even though the rest of the gifts have all been unwrapped, you'll have 12 more days to celebrate with miniature bottles of booze, or cheese, or chocolate, (or coffee, or jerky, or…).

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