There’s a popular Christmas song that many sing during the holidays, but few know the meaning behind the song. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” tells of 12 cumulative days of gifts. With each day, new gifts are added to the first day’s gift (“a partridge in a pear tree”). The number of gifts added is based upon the number of the day. Most notable is the resounding chorus of “five golden rings,” given on the fifth day.
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a fun song to sing, but most people have never given much thought to the significance of the 12 days. The church has traditionally suggested that the 12 days start on Christmas day (or in some traditions, the day after Christmas) and the 12 days culminate with the feast of Epiphany, which is observed on January 6th.
The Feast of Epiphany
This feast day is meant to commemorate the day in which the wise man arrived to see the baby Jesus. Therefore, the liturgical calendar of some churches call this day, “The Three Kings’ Day.” Some traditions also hold that Epiphany marks the day when John the Baptist baptized Jesus.
But are these things really so? What does the Bible say?
According to the gospel of Matthew, we know these Wise Men came from the Persian Empire (read: Who were the Three Wise Men?). They traveled first to Jerusalem seeking the Christ child, and inquired of King Herod where they might find Him. Then, led by the star again, they eventually found the child where the star came to rest. While tradition says that the Wise Men arrived 12 days after the birth of Jesus, Scripture suggests that is not so.
Arrival After The Dedication of Jesus?
In accordance with the Law, Mary and Joseph took their child to the temple to be dedicated to the Lord.
Luke 2:22 And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord;
The time when this dedication was to be done was clearly prescribed in Levitical law (Lev 12:2-4). The days of Mary’s purification were at least 40 days after the birth of Jesus. For 7 days, a woman having given birth was deemed to be unclean. On the eighth day, a man child was to be circumcised. Then, 33 days were to pass for a woman’s purification to be fulfilled. After that, the young couple was to take their baby for dedication in the Temple, along with an animal sacrifice to offer to the Lord for the mother’s purification.
Lev 12:6 And when the days of her purifying are fulfilled, for a son, or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon, or a turtledove, for a sin offering, unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, unto the priest:
This offering was to be made before the Lord to make atonement for the woman and to cleanse her from the issue of blood. How fitting that it was to be “a lamb of the first year” and a bird (a young pigeon or a turtledove). Symbolically, this seems to represent Jesus, the Lamb of God, and the Holy Spirit who appeared as a dove. A provision was also made for those who could not afford to offer a lamb. In such a case, the woman was able to bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons.
Since we are told in Luke 2:24 that Mary made an offering of birds (plural), this is an indication that Mary and Joseph did not have the necessary funds to purchase a lamb for their burnt offering. Had the Wise Men arrived in 12 days, as suggested by tradition, Mary and Joseph would have received the precious gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Had that been the case, Mary would have been able to provide a blood offering in the form of a lamb for her purification.
This Bible tells that the dedication of Jesus, and the purification of Mary, would have been at least 40 days after his birth. Therefore, we can reason that the Wise Men could not have arrived before this time.
Arrival When Jesus was Two Years Old?
Some suggest that the Wise Men did not arrive to the place where Jesus was until he was two years of age, and living in a house in Nazareth. This is based on Matthew 2:1-11. In this passage, we are told that the Wise Men “came into the house and saw the young child.” Couple that with the decree of Herod that all children two years old and under should be put to death, it’s easy to understand why some think Jesus was near two years of age when the Wise Men arrived. But could that be true? There is no evidence to support it.
Questionable is the translation of “young child.” The Greek word used by Matthew is paidion, and it means a childling (of either sex), i.e. (prop.) an infant, or a half-grown boy or girl. Also problematic, is assuming the age of Jesus based on Herod’s decree. Herod could have been “covering his bases,” and going well beyond the age that Jesus was at the time. Remember, the Wise Men were supposed to report back to Herod (Matt 2:8). If six months, a year, or longer had passed when Herod realized they never returned, he might have decreed “two and under” to make sure Jesus would be killed.
The Wise Men “Came Into the House”
We know that Jesus was born in a place where animals were kept. Perhaps it was a stable or a cave, but it’s most likely it was the lower level of the house of a relative where animals were kept in cold weather. (the word we translate “inn” is the Greek word for “upper room” Read: Was Jesus Born in a Stable, a Cave or a House?) It is, therefore, thought that Mary and Joseph stayed at the Bethlehem house and once all the guest who were there for the census departed, the relatives invited Mary and Joseph to the upper room. They would have stayed there until after they went to the Temple and until she was able to make the return trip to Nazareth (this is all covered in: Was Jesus Born in a Stable, a Cave or a House?).
It is also possible that the Wise Men were led by the star to Nazareth after they had made the trip home. We are told in Luke that following the dedication of Jesus in the Temple (40 days or more after His birth), Mary and Joseph returned to their home in Nazareth (Luke 2:39). But it’s still unlikely that this journey would have taken close to two years.
It’s clear that the Wise Men arriving 12 days after Jesus’ birth is incorrect. The timing does not fit because had the Wise Men arrived prior to the dedication at the Temple, Mary and Joseph would have offered a lamb, not the alternative offering of a bird (which was the offering for those who could not afford a lamb). Mary and Joseph were devout Jews and had they been given the precious gifts of great value from the Wise Men, they would have been able to sell the gold, frankincense, or myrrh and had the money to purchase a lamb to offer to God.
It does, however, make sense that it was from these precious gifts that Mary and Joseph had the means to flee into Egypt with Jesus. The Bible clearly supports that their flight into Egypt was after the Wise Men came.
Mat 2:13 And when they [the Wise Men] were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt…
So how long was it after Jesus’ birth that the Wise Men arrived? We simply do not know. But there is sufficient reasoning to think it was more than 40 days and before His second birthday.
What we do know, for certain, is that the proper response, when coming to Jesus, is that of worship, and honor, and glory. The Wise Men rightly adored Him when they found Him…whatever His age was at the time:
Mat 2:11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child [Greek “paidion” — a childling, an infant, or a half-grown boy or girl] with Mary his mother, and [the Wise Men] fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.
And what should we present when we come to Jesus. Watch and read about a old Christmas song that reveals our answer (In the Bleak Midwinter). You might not have heard this song before, but we promise it is worth your time and it will bless you.
Read About the Wise Men
- Who were the Three Wise Men? Fact, or legend?
- How Did the Wise Men Know This Was the Messiah? How Did They Know to Follow His Star?
- Did The Wise Men Arrive 12 Days After Jesus’ Birth? Or Was It Much Later?
- WHAT is the Significance of the Wise Men's Gifts? Were These Men Kings?
- What’s the Story Behind “The Gift of the Magi” by O’Henry?
Does “Xmas” Cross Jesus Out of Christmas?
The Most Important Lesson for YOU in the Nativity Story?
Misconceptions about the Journey to Bethlehem (video)
Errors in the Nativity Story? Is Jesus’ birthplace wrong?
Who Were the Three Wise Men? Why Did Herod Fear Them?
How Did the Wise Men Know to Follow His Star?
Did The Wise Men Arrive 12 Days After Jesus’ Birth? Or Was It Much Later?
What is the significance of the Three Kings' gifts?
Where was Jesus born? A stable, a cave or a house?
Was Mary a Levite, making Jesus King & Priest?
Was Jesus born in September (not December?)
Should we celebrate Jesus’ birthday in September?
Was Jesus born in a stable, cave or house?
Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?
How did Jesus become a man?
Do You Get These 7 Things Right or Wrong About the Nativity Story?
Are You Stuck in the Middle This Christmas? (from the comedy TV show "The Middle.")
What are the Prophecies of Christmas? (video)
Where are genealogies of Jesus in Mark and John?
Why Two Different Genealogies for Jesus?
Songs of Christmas
Away in a Manger; Mary, Did You Know? Rose of Bethlehem; Good Christian Men Rejoice; Hark! The Herald Angels Sing; What Child Is This? I Wonder As I Wander; What Child Is This? The First Noel In the Bleak Midwinter (a golden oldie)
The Season of Advent (the 4 weeks before Christmas)
Will You Find Rest This Advent Season?
HOPE: Prophecy Gives Hope - Advent Candle 1 (video)
LOVE: Promise Reveals Love - Advent Candle 2 (video)
JOY: Jesus Is Our Joy - Advent Candle 3 (video)
PEACE: Pause to Find Peace - Advent Candle 4 (video)
Peace Delivers Hope
Promise Ignites Hope
Preparation Produces Hope
Prophesy Reveals Hope
Pause to Find:
- Hope (video)
- the Promises of God (video)
- See Jesus (video)
- Hear God’s Plan (video)
Christmas Articles & Videos
What If You Had Been There When Jesus Was Born? (video)
A Boastful Christmas Letter
Alone at Christmas? Feeling lonely?
Another reason God came to dwell with man.
How can you have a white Christmas without snow?
Christmas, abortion and Joseph, the forgotten man of Christmas
Remember the Wonder of Christmas
Will you find rest, peace and joy this advent season?
A Christmas Morning Prayer by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)
Christmas Trivia Fun (video)
Handel’s Messiah: The Hallelujah Chorus by the Hallelujah Monks (amazing video)
Why Did Jesus Come? Six Reasons for Our Hope!
Good News for All People: God in a Manger (video)
What Child Is This? by Martina McBride (video)
The Story Behind the Gift of the Magi
Oh, What a Gift! (video)
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