The 12 Days of Christmas – Complete History and Story

Most of the Western world is familiar with the festive song ‘12 Days of Christmas.’ It’s a fun ditty that describes twelve days of gift-giving in the countdown to Christmas Day.

While its origins are unclear – some say it’s an old children’s rhyme, others believe it hides coded messages – it’s become a staple of the holiday season.

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The question is, what does it all mean? Who’s gifting six geese a-laying and, let’s be honest, who’d want to receive them? It sounds like a lot of responsibility.

At least the five gold rings don’t need feeding (or a pond). Fortunately, 12 Days of Christmas is a largely metaphorical song, though it celebrates a special time.

The first thing to know is 12 Days of Christmas doesn’t actually refer to the countdown to Christmas Day.

It starts on Christmas Day (on the first day) and ends twelve days later on January 5th or ‘Twelfth Night.’ It’s a period that has been celebrated throughout Europe since before the middle ages.

Traditionally, each day represents a feast day for a saint and their respective characteristics or services.

For example, Boxing Day celebrates martyrs because its saint, St Stephen, died for his religious beliefs. Let’s take a closer look at each day referenced in the song:

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Day 1: Christmas Day (December 25th) marks the birth of Jesus Christ.

Day 2: Boxing Day (December 26th) celebrates the life and martyrdom of St. Stephen.

Day 3: (December 27th) is dedicated to St. John the Divine because Jesus reportedly loved him most out of all his disciples.

Day 4: (December 28th) is one of the few days which doesn’t celebrate a saint. Instead, it marks the Feast of the Holy Innocents, a day to mourn the babies killed by King Herod.

Day 5: (December 29th) celebrates St. Thomas Becket and his courage in opposing King Henry II’s attempts to make the monarchy more powerful than the Church.

Day 6: (December 30th) is dedicated to St. Egwin of Worcester who, legend says, brought forth a stream when lost in the Alps and doubted by his derisive companions.

Day 7: (December 31st) is New Year’s Eve, a time of joyous celebration both today and throughout history.

It is also a time to commemorate Pope Sylvester I, a Catholic leader renowned for his generosity, patience and willingness to work alongside the monarchy.

In Germany, Israel, Austria, Slovenia, Hungary, Croatia, Poland, and many other eastern European nations, this day is sometimes referred to as ‘Silvester.’

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Day 8: (January 1st) New Year’s Day is, traditionally, a time to celebrate the life of Mary Magdalene, mother of Jesus Christ. 

Day 9: (January 2nd) remembers the deeds of two saints, St. Gregory Nazianzen and St. Basil the Great, close friends and Doctors of the Church who spent their lives tending to the sick

Day 10: (January 3rd) is special because it was the day of Jesus’ naming ceremony or ‘christening’ as we’d refer to it now. On this day, Jesus was officially named in the Jewish Temple.

It is a widely celebrated event and different churches commemorate it on different days, though January 3rd is thought to be the original naming day.  

Day 11: (January 4th) celebrates the life of the first American saint, St. Elizabeth Seton. She is the patron saint of Catholic schools, widows, and seafarers.

Day 12: (January 5th), also known as Epiphany Eve or Twelfth Night, is the final day of festive celebrations.

It remembers St. John Neumann, the first American bishop. He is known for his tireless efforts to bring Catholic scripture and teachings to a wider audience. 

The History of the Twelfth Night Celebration

Historically, Twelfth Night – the final day of the festive season – has been celebrated with lavish parties and public celebrations.

Interestingly, it was common on this day for role reversals to take place. Often, servants were invited to be waited on by their wealthy employers.

It’s thought the tradition dates back to medieval times and may refer to the ‘opposite’ natures of winter and spring.

Twelfth Night Celebration

In most households, a Twelfth Night cake was prepared and eaten in the morning, before the start of any celebrations.

The recipe was made up of eggs, butter, fruit, nuts, and spices. In fact, the closest modern version of the Twelfth Night cake is the Milanese panettone.

Much like the Greek tradition of hiding a coin in a cake, a single dried pea was baked inside.

The finder of the pea was titled Lord or Lady of Misrule and their job, throughout the Twelfth Day celebrations, was to lead the revelers in merriment.

Later, in Georgian times, this festive tradition was altered slightly to create both a King and Queen of Misrule.

Together, they would hold dominion over the parties and make sure everybody had a good time.

During these Twelfth Night parties, there was lots of music, particularly songs played on the pipes. Many of the games played featured eggs as they were widely available, cheap and easily replaceable.

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It’s a good thing because a lot of these games involved tossing eggs across the room or balancing them precariously on spoons.  

In an even stranger example of festive role reversal, English cathedrals would choose one boy from the monastery school to be bishop for a day.

From December 6th to December 28th, this ‘Boy Bishop’ could exert all the normal authority of a regular, grown-up bishop.

The only thing he was forbidden from doing was performing Mass.

Needless to say, this tradition wasn’t popular with monarchs, who were all-powerful except when it came to the rule of the church. King Henry VII banned the process in 1542.

It would be briefly revived by his eldest daughter Mary I, then quickly outlawed for good by his other child Elizabeth I.

Finally, when the Twelfth Night celebrations came to an end and the festivities gave way to resolutions for a good and prosperous New Year, people would take down their decorations and return to the fields.

The first Monday after Twelfth Night was commonly referred to as ‘Plough Monday’ because it marked a return to everyday duties.

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Main Points About 12 Days of Christmas

  1. The 12 days of Christmas is the span between the birth of baby Jesus and the visit of the Magi.
  2. Also known as the twelve tides, the 12 days of Christmas is festivity to celebrate the nativity of Jesus.
  3. The 12 days of Christmas usually begin on the 25th day of December and runs through till the 6th Day of January.
  4. The last day of the 12 days of Christmas is known as the Epiphany. It is also called the day of the Three Kings.
  5. Sometimes during the 12 days of Christmas, some families like to observe other feasts or other days set aside for Saints.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About 12 Days of Christmas

  1. What do the 12 days of Christmas mean?

    The 12-day celebration of Christmas is symbolic of The Twelve months which are present in a year. Each day of Christmas is celebrated as a new month of the year.

  2. How do you celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas?

    Christmas day, boxing day, St Apostle day, the feast of holy innocent, St Thomas Becket, St Egwin of Worcester, New year's Eve, Mary the mother of Jesus, St Basil the Great, the feast of the holy name of Jesus, St Elizabeth Ann Seton, and epiphany. This is how the 12 days Christmas is celebrated.

  3. Why is Epiphany 12 days after Christmas?

    The historians and the Christians believe that 12 days was the exact time that the wise men and the shepherds took to travel to Bethlehem and reach Jesus Christ after his birth and recognize him as a God.

  4. What is the total number of gifts given in the 12 days of Christmas?

    The total number of gifts that are given are 364. We can see that the number of drummers, doves, and partridges is in the order. So the easiest way to count our presents is to add up to the middle of the list and then double the result: (12 + 22 + 30 + 36 + 40 + 42) × 2 = 364

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Conclusion

From 25th December till 5th January, it’s known as 12 days of Christmas. 25th December is the day we celebrate as the birth of Jesus Christ. 5th January is observed as Epiphany.

For my readers following other religions apart from Christianity, this would be a new piece of information. For Christians, this should be a reference about the exact significance of each day before Epiphany.

Word Cloud for 12 Days of Christmas

The following is a collection of the most used terms in this article on 12 Days of Christmas. This should help in recalling related terms as used in this article at a later stage for you.

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Twelve_Days_of_Christmas_(song)
  2. https://www.vox.com/2015/12/25/10661878/12-days-of-christmas-explained
  3. https://people.howstuffworks.com/culture-traditions/holidays-christmas/twelve-days-christmas.htm

Hi, I'm David, a Christmas fan boy (and expert!) from the Idaho, USA. If you looking to talk about all things Christmas, I'm the person on the internet t! Through running the site, I've become an expert on all things Christmas :)