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What are Advent and the 12 days of Christmas?

Easter celebrates Christ’s resurrection. Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon that falls on or after 21 March. It can be as late as 25 April. By the fourth century, Easter was preceded by 40 days of prayer, penance, almsgiving, and fasting from certain foods or for one or more meals each day. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday (4 Feb.–10 Mar.) which is 46 days (40 days not counting Sundays) before Easter. The name Ash Wednesday comes from the practice of placing ashes on the forehead as a sign of repentance. Carnival is a festival traditionally held in Roman Catholic societies. It begins at least 3 days before Lent and usually involves a public parade or celebration with people dressed in costumes. Mardi Gras in New Orleans is the best known Carnival celebration in the United States.

By the sixth century, Christmas was preceded by a time of preparation called Advent which means “the coming.” Advent included some fasting and four Sunday Masses. Advent started the fourth Sunday before Christmas (Nov. 27–Dec. 3). In the United States, the Christmas season begins right after Thanksgiving and is a time of gratitude and rejoicing. As a result, Advent is now a time of prayer but not fasting. This is a time of Christmas programs, Christmas carols, and nativity scenes. (Joseph F. Kelly, The Origins of Christmas, 75–77)

The twelve days of Christmas began on Christmas day and ended on January 6, which according to early Christians was the day Jesus was baptized or born, or the day the wise men came. By the early Middle Ages, January 6 was a feast commemorating the coming of the wise men. (Kelly, 71–72)