Christmas season actually starts on Christmas Day itself. That’s right: December 25 marks the official start of the 12 days of Christmas, the Christian tradition that shares its name with a relentlessly stick-in-your-head Christmas carol.
The 12 Days of Christmas are now most famous as a song about someone receiving lots of presents from their ‘true love’. However, to get to the song there had to be the days to start with!
The 12 Days of Christmas start on Christmas Day and last until the evening of the 5th January – also known as Twelfth Night. The 12 Days have been celebrated in Europe since before the middle ages and were a time of celebration.
What are the 12 days of Christmas?
The 12 days of Christmas is the period that in Christian theology marks the span between the birth of Christ and the coming of the Magi, the three wise men. It begins on December 25 (Christmas) and runs through January 6 (the Epiphany, sometimes also called Three Kings’ Day). The four weeks preceding Christmas are collectively known as Advent, which begins four Sundays before Christmas and ends on December 24.
Some families choose to mark the 12-day period by observing the feast days of various saints (including St. Stephen on December 26) and planning daily Christmas-related activities, but for many, after December 25 things go back to business as usual.
“The 12 Days of Christmas” is also a Christmas carol in which the singer brags about all the cool gifts they received from their “true love” during the 12 days of Christmas. Each verse builds on the previous one, serving as a really effective way to annoy family members on road trips.
The 12 Days each traditionally celebrate a feast day for a saint and/or have different celebrations:
- Day 1 (25th December): Christmas Day – celebrating the Birth of Jesus
- Day 2 (26th December also known as Boxing Day): St Stephen’s Day. He was the first Christian martyr (someone who dies for their faith). It’s also the day when the Christmas Carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’ takes place.
- Day 3 (27th December): St John the Apostle (One of Jesus’s Disciples and friends)
- Day 4 (28th December): The Feast of the Holy Innocents – when people remember the baby boys which King Herod killed when he was trying to find and kill the Baby Jesus.
- Day 5 (29th December): St Thomas Becket. He was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th century and was murdered on 29th December 1170 for challenging the King’s authority over the Church.
- Day 6 (30th December): St Egwin of Worcester.
- Day 7 (31st December): New Year’s Eve (known as Hogmanay in Scotland). Pope Sylvester I is traditionally celebrated on this day. He was one of the earliest popes (in the 4th Century). In many central and eastern European countries (including Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Czechia, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Slovakia, Switzerland and Slovenia) New Year’s Eve is still sometimes called ‘Silvester’. In the UK, New Year’s Eve was a traditional day for ‘games’ and sporting competitions. Archery was a very popular sport and during the middle ages it was the law that it had to be practised by all men between ages 17-60 on Sunday after Church! This was so the King had lots of very good archers ready in case he need to go to war!
- Day 8 (1st January): 1st January – Mary, the Mother of Jesus
- Day 9 (2nd January): St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen, two important 4th century Christians.
- Day 10 (3rd January): Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. This remembers when Jesus was officially ‘named’ in the Jewish Temple. It’s celebrated by different churches on a wide number of different dates!
- Day 11 (4th January): St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American saint, who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the past it also celebrated the feast of Saint Simon Stylites (who lives on a small platform on the top of a pillar for 37 years!).
- Day 12 (5th January also known as Epiphany Eve): St. John Neumann who was the first Bishop in American. He lived in the 19th century.
Twelfth Night was a big time of celebration with people holding large parties. During these parties, often the roles in society were reversed with the servants being served by the rich people. This dated back to medieval and Tudor times when Twelfth Night marked the end of ‘winter’ which had started on 31st October with All Hallows Eve (Halloween).
At the start of Twelfth Night the Twelfth Night cake was eaten. This was a rich cake made with eggs and butter, fruit, nuts and spices. The modern Italian Panettone is the cake we currently have that’s most like the old Twelfth Night cake.
A dried pea or bean was cooked in the cake. Whoever found it was the Lord (or Lady) of Misrule for night. The Lord of Misrule led the celebrations and was dressed like a King (or Queen). This tradition goes back to the Roman celebrations of Saturnalia. In later times, from about the Georgian period onwards, to make the Twelfth Night ‘gentile’, two tokens were put in the cake (one for a man and one for a women) and whoever found them became the the ‘King’ and ‘Queen’ of the Twelfth Night party.
In English Cathedrals, during the middle ages, there was the custom of the ‘Boy Bishop’ where a boy from the Cathedral or monastery school was elected as a Bishop on 6th December (St Nicholas’s Day) and had the authority of a Bishop (except to perform Mass) until 28th December. King Henry VIII banned the practise in 1542 although it came back briefly under Mary I in 1552 but Elizabeth I finally stopped it during her reign.
During Twelfth Night it was traditional for different types of pipes to be played, especially bagpipes. Lots of games were played including ones with eggs. These included tossing an egg between two people moving further apart during each throw – drop it and you lose; and passing an egg around on spoons. Another popular game was ‘snapdragon’ where you picked raisins or other dried fruit out of a tray of flaming brandy!
The first Monday after the Christmas feast has finished was known as ‘Plough Monday’ as this was when farming work would all begin again!
In many parts of the UK, people also went Wassailing on Twelfth Night.
Twelfth Night is also known as Epiphany Eve. In many countries it’s traditional to put the figures of the Wise Men/Three Kings into the Nativity Scene on Epiphany Eve ready to celebrate Epiphany on the 6th January.
It’s also traditional to take your Christmas decorations down following Twelfth Night.
Twelfth Night is also the name of a famous play written by William Shakespeare. It’s thought it was written in 1601/1602 and was first performed at Candlemas in 1602, although it wasn’t published until 1623.
The lyrics to “The 12 Days of Christmas” have changed over the years
The version most people are familiar with today begins with this verse:
On the first day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
A partridge in a pear tree.
The song then adds a gift for each day, building on the verse before it, until you’re reciting all 12 gifts together:
- Day 2: two turtle doves
- Day 3: three French hens
- Day 4: four calling birds
- Day 5: five gold rings
- Day 6: six geese a-laying
- Day 7: seven swans a-swimming
- Day 8: eight maids a-milking
- Day 9: nine ladies dancing
- Day 10: 10 lords a-leaping
- Day 11: 11 pipers piping
- Day 12: 12 drummers drumming
The history of the carol is somewhat murky. The earliest known version first appeared in a 1780 children’s book called Mirth With-out Mischief. Some historians think the song could be French in origin, but most agree it was designed as a “memory and forfeits” game, in which singers tested their recall of the lyrics and had to award their opponents a “forfeit” — a kiss or a favor of some kind — if they made a mistake.
Many variations of the lyrics have existed at different points. Some mention “bears a-baiting” or “ships a-sailing”; some name the singer’s mother as the gift giver instead of their true love. Early versions list four “colly” birds, an archaic term meaning black as coal (blackbirds, in other words). And some people theorize that the five gold rings actually refer to the markings of a ring-necked pheasant, which would align with the bird motif of the early verses.
In any case, the song most of us are familiar with today comes from an English composer named Frederic Austin; in 1909, he set the melody and lyrics (including changing “colly” to “calling”) and added as his own flourish the drawn-out cadence of “five go-old rings.”
The song is not a coded primer on Christianity
A popular theory that’s made the internet rounds is that the lyrics to “The 12 Days of Christmas” are coded references to Christianity; it posits that the song was written to help Christians learn and pass on the tenets of their faith while avoiding persecution. Under that theory, the various gifts break down as follows, as the myth-debunking website Snopes explained:
- 2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments
- 3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
- 4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
- 5 Golden Rings = The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the “Pentateuch,” which gives the history of man’s fall from grace.
- 6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
- 7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
- 8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
- 9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
- 10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
- 11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
- 12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed
The partridge in the pear tree, naturally, represents Jesus Christ.
This theory seems tailor-made for circulation via chain emails, but it actually makes little sense once you examine it. Snopes has a great explanation of the many, many holes in its logic. The most egregious: First, the song’s gifts have nothing to do with their Christian “equivalents,” so the song is basically useless as a way to remember key pillars of the faith. And second, if Christians were so restricted from practicing their faith that they had to conceal messages in a song, they also wouldn’t be able to celebrate Christmas in the first place — much less sing Christmas carols.
The late historian William Studwell, known for his Christmas carol expertise, also refuted the coded message idea. Via a Northern Illinois University news release:
First, Catholics of that era were not terribly persecuted, so there would have been little need for their teachings to have been secretive. Also, the breezy, bouncy nature of the tune hardly fits with the character of the church at that time. Finally, neither Studwell, nor any other reputable researcher, has ever found a definitive explanation of what each of the 12 gifts in the song would have correlated to in the Catholic catechism.
Sorry to spoil your dinner party fun fact; while I’m at it, I might as well tell you “Ring Around the Rosie” isn’t about the Black Plague, either.