The Twelve Days of Christmas in the Orthodox Church and Theophania

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,


The Twelve Days of Christmas are a festive period linking together two Great Feasts of the Lord: Nativity and Theophany. During this period, one celebration leads into another. The Nativity of Christ is a three day celebration: the formal title of the first day is "The Nativity According to the Flesh of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ", and celebrates not only the Nativity of Jesus, but also the Adoration of the Shepherds of Bethlehem and the arrival of the Magi; the second day is referred to as the "Synaxis of the Theotokos", and commemorates the role of the Virgin Mary in the Incarnation; the third day is known as the "Third Day of the Nativity", and is also the feast of the Protomartyr and Archdeacon Saint Stefanos (Stephen).

The 29th of December is the Orthodox Fest of the Holy Innocents (the slaughter of 14,000 infants by Herod).

The Afterfeast of the Nativity (similar to the Western octave) continues until 31 December (that day is known as the Apodosis or "Leave-taking of the Nativity).

The Saturday following the Nativity is commemorated by special readings from the Epistle of Saint Paul (1 Timothy 6:11-16) and Gospel (St. Matthew 12:15-21) during the Divine Liturgy. The Sunday after Nativity has its own liturgical commemoration in honor of "The Righteous Ones: Joseph the Betrothed, David the king and James the Brother of the Lord."

The 1st of January, at the center of the festal period, is another feast of the Lord (though not ranked as a Great Feast): the Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord. On this same day is the feast day of Saint Basil the Great.

The 2nd of January begins the Forefeast of the Theophany.

The Eve of the Theophany (5th of January) is a day of strict fasting, on which the devout faithful will not eat anything until the first star is seen at night. This day is known as paramoni ("Preparation"), and follows the same general outline as Christmas Eve. That morning is the celebration of the Royal Hours and then the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great combined with Vespers, at the conclusion of which is celebrated the Great Blessing of Waters, in commemoration of the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. There are certain parallels between the hymns chanted on paramoni and those of Holy and Great Friday, to show that, according to Orthodox Christian theology, the steps that Jesus took into the Jordan River were the first steps on the way to the Cross. That night the All-Night Vigil is served for the Feast of the Theophany.


After the feast of the Circumcision (January 1st), the Church turns its gaze from our Lord's infancy and childhood to His public ministry, which will begin with His Baptism (St. Matthew 3:13-17). The Feast of our Lord's Baptism is called the Theophany, meaning "the manifestation" or "appearance of God", the Holy Trinity, and is celebrated on January 6th.

During the days leading up to the Nativity, we sang the pre-festive troparion (hymn): "Bethlehem, make ready; Ephrathah, prepare yourself."

Beginning on January 2nd at Vespers (that is, starting on the evening of January 1st), we look to Galilee and the River Jordan and sing the pre-festive troparion (hymn) of Theophany:

"Zebulun, make ready; Naphtali, prepare yourself. O River Jordan, stand and leap for joy to receive the Master coming to be baptized. O Adam, rejoice with the first mother, Eve, and do not hide yourselves as once you did in Paradise. For, seeing you naked, Christ has appeared to put on the first robe. He has appeared to renew all creation."


If one of the pre-festive days (January 2-5) falls on a Saturday, then the liturgical books appoint special readings for the day's Divine Liturgy. The Epistle of St. Paul (1 Timothy 3:14-4:5) contains an early statement of faith in Jesus, which emphasizes the theme of manifestation or Theophany:

"He was manifest in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit; seen by the Angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory."


If one of the pre-festive days falls on a Sunday, then a special prokeimenon and alleluia are sung at the Divine Liturgy, asking God's blessing and assistance. In the Epistle of St. Paul (2 Timothy 4:5-8), Saint Paul refers to all those "who have looked for His appearing with eager longing." The Gospel is another account of the ministry and preaching of Saint John the Baptist and Forerunner, taken this time from the very beginning of the Gospel according to Saint Mark (Mark 1:1-8).


Since December 25th, there has been no fasting; we have kept festival in honor of our Lord's Birth.

However, the Church does appoint a single day of fasting before the feast of our Lord's Theophany. Normally, this is on January 5th, the "Paramoni" or "Vigil" of Theophany. However, if January 5th falls on a Saturday or Sunday-days on which we do not normally fast-then the fast day is transferred to the previous Friday.

 On this day, a special service called the Royal Hours is celebrated. This service consists of the daytime services of the First Hour, Third Hour, Sixth Hour, Ninth Hour, and Typika, celebrated with special psalms and readings for the Theophany. (This service is called royal because, at one time, the Emperor himself always attended the service.) Each part of the service has an Old Testament prophecy, an Epistle reading, and a reading from the Holy Gospel.


Finally, we have come to the eve of the feast-the Paramoni or Vigil of Theophany (January 5th). If it is a weekday, it is a day of strict fasting, with the Royal Hours celebrated during the day, and Vespers and the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great in the evening. (Mystagogy: John Sanidopoulos)

THEOPHANY (or Epiphany)
By Professor Ioannes Fountoulis

On January 6th our Church celebrates the great despotic feast of "Theophany" or "Epiphany" or "Holy Lights." The forefeast begins the day after New Years, January 2nd. In this preparatory period is found the "Sunday Before the Lights." This fits into the functional forefeast preparation. In the Gospel lesson from the Divine Liturgy on this Sunday we hear: "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" from the prologue of the Gospel of St. Mark, who narrates the appearance of St. John the Forerunner in the Jordan desert, preaching and prophesying about Christ. Saint John baptized "in water", one "more powerful" than him though, Who came "before him", He will baptize people "in the Holy Spirit" (St. Mark 1:1-8).

The celebration is extended eight days after the feast, including three special days-the day after Theophany with the Synaxis of Saint John the Forerunner and Baptist of Christ on January 7th, the "Sunday After the Lights", and the last day of the feast, the apodosis (leave-taking) on January 14th, at which time also is chanted the entire service of the feast.

The meaning of the Theophany or the Epiphany of Christ was not connected to only a single historical fact of His life. According to the Orthodox teaching of baptism it is the beginning, the first public appearance and prominence of Jesus as Messiah and Savior. As such He was recognized by the representative of the Old Testament, the prophet St. John the Forerunner who saw the Holy Spirit "descending and resting upon Him" (St. John 1:32-34) and heard the voice of the Father: "This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased" (St. Matthew 3:17; St. Mark 1:11; St. Luke 3:22), assuring him of the sonship. At the baptism the Son/God appeared, but God/Trinity was also revealed, as the poet characteristically sings in the Apolytikion of the feast chanting: "In Jordan You were baptized, O Lord, and the veneration of the Trinity was manifested." The Son was baptized, the Father's voice was heard and the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove. "At the Jordan the Trinity was manifested," as the holy Kosmas sings in the third troparion of the eighth ode of the first canon of the feast.

By Protopresbyter George Dion Dragas

The Witness of St. John the Evangelist. In the Gospel of Saint John we find the first hints regarding the relation between the Baptism of Christ and the Sacrament of Baptism. Saint John the Forerunner speaks about the Baptism in water which he administered according to the divine calling and explains that the coming of Christ would transform it into baptism in the Spirit so that through it human beings would enter into the Kingdom of God: "John bore witness and said that he saw the Spirit descending like a Dove from heaven and resting upon Christ. He also said the he did not know Him [i.e., Christ-until that point], but He who sent him to baptize had said that on whom he would see the Spirit descending and resting upon him, he would be the One who will baptize in the Holy Spirit. St. John also said that he saw this and bore witness to it, namely, that He is [the Christ] the Son of God" (1:32-34). Exactly the same was confirmed by the Lord Himself when he said to Nicodemus: "Amen, amen, I say unto you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, one cannot enter the kingdom of God" (3:5). These words of the Lord constitute the institution of the Holy Sacrament of Baptism, though which human beings become Christians. The descent of the Holy Spirit, then, at the Baptism of Christ, revealed the sacrament of Christ which Christ instituted and operates through the Holy Spirit. It is the Baptism which the Lord delivered to his holy disciples as a basic element of their ministry in the world.


Man's return to the True God. The Baptism of the Forerunner was a "baptism" of repentance, which signaled man's return to God by obedience to the Divine Will. It was necessary in view of the coming of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God which He would bring into the world. It was a kind of prelude and preparation which looked towards God's intervention through the Messiah, that is, the justification of human beings and the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is most clearly manifested in the words of Christ to St. John the Baptist: "This is necessary, so that all righteousness might be fulfilled" (St. Matthew 3:15). So, when Christ came forth to receive the baptism of John as a man, he accepted the Divine will on behalf of the entire humanity. And then, the witness of the heavenly Father which recognized Him as His Beloved Son and the descent of the Holy Spirit in a bodily manner "in the form of a Dove" signaled the acceptance of Christ by the Father as the Messiah who would bring the Kingdom of God into humanity. This Kingdom was mainly and primarily represented by the communion of the Holy Spirit, as the prophet Isaiah had foretold: "Jacob is my son and I will take him up. Israel is my elect, whom my soul has accepted, and to whom I gave my Spirit so that he might judge among the nations" (42:1).

THE HUMANITY OF CHRIST AS THE BASIS OF MAN'S SALVATION. Both the acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah as well as the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Him refer to His humanity, which He assumed for our sake, and made it the basis of our justification and salvation. As the ecclesiastical hymnology declares:

"Having put on the form of the servant, O Christ, you came forth to be baptized by a servant in the waters of Jordan, so that You may redeem from the ancient slavery and sanctify and enlighten all of us human beings". (Vespers of the eve of Theophany).


"It is redemption that Christ is coming forth to bring to all believers through His baptism. Because through this, He purifies Adam, He raises the fallen, He put to shame the tyrant who caused the fall, He opens the heavens, He brings down the Holy Spirit, and He grants incorruption and participation" (8th Praise).


"Today the Lord comes to the waters of Jordan, and says to John: Be not shy for baptizing Me, because I came to save Adam the protoplast." (Oikos)


"As man You came to the river, O Christ, King, and you hasten to receive baptism from the hands of the Forerunner, for our sins, O Lover of mankind" (Sophronios of Jerusalem).

(To be continued)



The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George