Twelve Days of Christmas

Twelve Days of Christmas

Infobox Holiday
holiday_name = 12 Days of Christmas
type = Christian

caption = "The Adoration of the Magi". Fresco in Lower Church, Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi
observedby = Christians
date = 1st night/day 25-26 Dec
to 12th night/day 5-6 Jan
observances = varies by culture, country
relatedto = Christmas Day, Twelfth Night, Epiphany
The Twelve Days of Christmas, and the associated evenings of those twelve days (Twelve-tide), are the festive days beginning the evening of Christmas Day (December 25) through the morning of Epiphany (January 6). The associated evenings of the twelve days begin on the evening before the specified day. Thus, the first night of Christmas is December 25–26, and Twelfth Night is January 5–6. This period is also known as Christmastide.

Over the centuries, differing churches and sects of Christianity have changed the actual traditions, time frame, and their interpretations. St. Stephen's Day, for example, is December 26 in the Western Church and December 27 in the Eastern Church. December 26 is Boxing Day in the United Kingdom and some of its former colonies; December 28 is Childermas or the Feast of the Innocents. Currently, the 12 days and nights are celebrated in widely varying ways around the world. For example, some give gifts only on Christmas night, some only on Twelfth Night, and some each of the 12 nights.


Festival origin

The Twelve Days of Christmas as a celebration and festival is old and steeped in traditions. Over the centuries, differing churches and sects of Christianity have changed the actual traditions, time frame, and their interpretations.

Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages this period was one of continuous feasting and merrymaking, which climaxed on Twelfth Night, the traditional end of the Christmas season. Twelfth Night itself was forever solidified in popular culture when William Shakespeare used it as setting for one of his most famous stage plays, titled "Twelfth Night". Often a Lord of Misrule was chosen to lead the Christmas revels. [cite book |title=The Golden Bough |last=Frazer |first=James |authorlink=James George Frazer |year=1922 |publisher=McMillan |location=New York |isbn=1-58734-083-6| url=]

Some of these traditions were adapted from the older pagan customs, including the Roman Saturnalia. [cite book |title=4,000 Years of Christmas |last=Count |first=Earl |year=1997 |publisher=Ulysses Press |location= |isbn=1569750874 ] Some also have an echo in modern day pantomime where traditionally authority is mocked and the principal male lead is played by a woman, while the leading older female character, or 'Dame', is played by a man.

Colonial America

The original American colonists brought their version of the Twelve Days over from England, and adapted them to their new country, adding their own variations over the years. For example, it is believed by many that the modern day Christmas wreath originated with these colonials. A homemade wreath would be fashioned from local greenery, and if fruits were available, they were added. Making the wreaths was one of the traditions of Christmas Eve, then they would be hung on each home's front door beginning on Christmas night (1st night of Christmas) through Twelfth Night or Epiphany morning. As was already the tradition in their native England, all decorations would be taken down by Epiphany morning, and the remainder of the edibles would be consumed. A special cake was also baked then for Epiphany (which some now call the king cake).

Modern United States

With the onset of more Americanized and secular traditions throughout the past two centuries (such as the American "Santa Claus", popularity of Christmas Eve itself as a holiday, and rise in popularity of New Year's Eve parties as well), the traditions of the Twelve Days of Christmas have been largely forgotten in the U.S. This is also heightened by the commercial practice to have "After"-Christmas Sales" begin on December 26 and run usually until New Year's Eve.

However, a small percentage of Christians of many sects have held on to their own favorite ways to celebrate, and those who choose to also have their own church to guide them in a spiritual way of marking this reverent holiday. Americans who celebrate various ways include secular Christians of all backgrounds, religious Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Moravians and those of the Amish and Mennonite communities.

Today, some celebrants give gifts each of the twelve days, feast and otherwise celebrate the entire time through to Epiphany morning. Lighting a candle for each day has become a modern tradition in the U.S., and of course, singing the appropriate verses of the famous song each day is also an important and fun part of the American celebrations.

Some still celebrate Twelfth Night as the biggest night for parties and gift-giving, and some also light a Yule Log on the first night (Christmas), and let it burn some each of the twelve nights. Some Americans also have their own traditional foods to serve each night.

As in olden days, Twelfth Night to Epiphany morning is then the traditional time to take down the Christmas tree and decorations.

Modern celebrations in the UK

Many in the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth nations still celebrate some aspects of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Boxing Day is a national holiday in many Commonwealth nations, being the first full day of Christmas. Victorian-era stories by Charles Dickens (and others), particularly "A Christmas Carol", hold key elements of the celebrations such as the consumption of plum pudding, roasted goose, and wassail. While these foods are consumed more at the beginning of the Twelve Days in the UK, some dine and dance in the traditional way throughout, all the way to Twelfth Night. Some use William Shakespeare's play by that same name (written around 1601) as an inspiration.

Traditionally, the twelfth day is the last day for decorations to be taken down. It is seen by many to be bad luck to take decorations down after this date, though decorations may be kept up until the next Christmas to avoid this bad luck. However, those who forget to take down their decorations before the twelfth day rarely keep them up for the remainder of the year.

Modern celebrations in other nations

All countries with Roman Catholics have forms of celebrations for the Twelve Days of Christmas. The most popular remaining tradition in this century throughout the world is the cooking of the traditional foods to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. In some Latin countries, a Rosca de reyes is baked: This is a traditional cake from Spain similar to the King cake in other countries. The recipe varies from the American-style "king cake", but the meaning is the same. Similarly, in France (and French-speaking countries) a "Galette des Rois" (the tart for the (three) Kings) is baked with a bean or small china figure of the Christ-child inside — the person who finds it becomes "King" and wears a paper crown for the day. In Italy the tradition of "La Befana", whose name is taken from the word 'Epiphany', is very substantial and wide-spread.In Latin America the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas and Epiphany is the beginning of another religious-based season which has meshed with secular and pagan celebrations over time: That being "Carnaval" (or "Carnival") season, which concludes, in turn, on Mardi Gras Day.


*cite web | title=Christmas | work=Catholic Encyclopedia | url= | accessmonthday=December 22 | accessyear=2005 Primarily subhead "Popular Merrymaking" under "Liturgy and Custom".

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