"On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me..."
You may notice many businesses and organizations starting a Twelve Days of Christmas celebration or sale now. Some schools even started marking the Twelve Days of Christmas at the beginning of December, because they were only going to be to school twelve days in December before Christmas break.
Without proper context, you would think this could be an accurate use of the term. The modern Christmas season has come to be defined officially as the period from Black Friday after Thanksgiving through Christmas Day. Unofficially, it seems to begin the day after Halloween, or All Saints Day. This is largely because the economic component of Christmas is so important, so the focus has shifted to the shopping related days before Christmas. We can promote this shopping season through decoration, through music, through events leading into Christmas Day, and then get everyone to return their focus to work and productivity after that one singular day.
But, while this might be our modern focus, it is not what the Twelve Days of Christmas refer to, nor when they occur.
This specific period of time starts on Christmas Day and then continues through Epiphany. There is some debate as to whether day one starts on Christmas Day and then finishes the day before Epiphany, or whether the twelve day period starts on the day after Christmas and then includes Epiphany at the end. Either way Christmas Day on December 25 and Epiphany on January 6 mark the bounds of the Twelve Days of Christmas, also known as Christmastide or Twelvetide.
Those two bounds would be the markers because it reflects the entirety of the Nativity of Christ. Christmas Day would celebrate the birth and the stable. The shepherds arriving, angels appearing, and the spreading of the gospel. Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, would mark the arrival of the Magi, completing the Nativity story.
The origins of this practice date back to 567 AD, where the Council of Tours proclaimed this twelve day period between Christmas Day and Epiphany as a sacred and festive season. Advent, or the weeks leading into Christmas, would be the more somber and reflective preparation for the feast. But Christmastide or Twelvetide would be the celebration and the feast.
With that in mind, traditionally, decorations for Christmas, like the Christmas tree, would not go up until Christmas Eve and then would remain up through the celebration. They would only be taken down between Twelfth Night, the eve of January 5, and the morning of Epiphany, January 6.
Likewise, gifts may have been given each of the twelve days of this period. This provides the inspiration for the song. Despite what you may have read, the song is not a catechism song, with encoded symbols for Christian theology. The symbols can be seen, but could be done with any gifts assigned to the numbers. In other words, the numbers there are all that matter. Rather, the origins of the song are more likely simply in a children's memory and forfeit song, given the cumulative nature of the verses. It would be sung and repeated to see which child forgot one of the gifts first.
Over time, celebrations have developed for each of the twelve days, whether they are feasts for the saints, or more secular and traditional holidays. I've included a snapshot below for each of the celebrations, and will be writing about each day this season starting on Christmas Day.
- The First Day of Christmas - December 25 - A Partridge in a Pear Tree
- Christmas Day
- The Second Day of Christmas - December 26 - Two Turtle Doves
- St. Stephen's Day, or the Feast of Stephen
- Boxing Day, a day to give gifts to the household staff or the poor, now mainly a shopping holiday
- Feast days of Abadiu of Antinoe, James the Just, and Synaxis of the Theotokos
- Earliest day of the Feast of the Holy Family (it would be celebrated here this year)
- The Third Day of Christmas - December 27 - Three French Hens
- Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist
- Feast days for Blessed Francesco Spoto, Blessed Sara Salkahazi, Fabiola, Pope Maximus of Alexandria, Nicarete, and Theodorus and Theophanes
- The Fourth Day of Christmas - December 28 - Four Calling Birds
- Feast of the Innocents, commemorating the Massacre of the Innocents, where Herod killed the children two and under in an attempt to kill the Christ child
- Feast days for Abel, Caterina Volpicelli, and Simon the Athonite
- The Fifth Day of Christmas - December 29 - Five Golden Rings
- Memorial of St. Thomas Becket, Bishop and Martyr
- Feast days for David, King and Prophet, Jonathan, Prince of Israel, and Trophimus of Aries
- The Six Day of Christmas - December 30 - Six Geese a Laying
- Feast days for Abraham the Writer, Anysia of Salonika, Egwin of Evesham, Frances Joseph-Gaudet, Liberius of Ravenna, Pope Felix I, Ralph of Vaucelles, and Roger of Cannae
- The Seventh Day of Christmas - December 31 - Seven Swans a Swimming
- New Year's Eve
- First Night
- Watch Night
- Hogmanay or "Auld Year's Night"
- Feast day for Pope Sylvester I
- The Eighth Day of Christmas - January 1 - Eight Maids a Milking
- New Year's Day
- The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
- Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, as he would have been circumcised eight days after his birth.
- Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus in some traditions
- Feast of Fools
- Feast days for Adalard of Corbie, Basil the Great, Fulgentius of Ruspe, Giuseppe Maria Tomasi, Telemachus, and Zygmunt Gorazdowski
- The Ninth Day of Christmas - January 2 - Nine Ladies Dancing
- The second day of New Year
- Feast of Sts. Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus
- Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus in some traditions
- Feasts also for Defendens of Thebes, Johann Konrad Wilhelm Lohe, Macarius of Alexandria, Seraphim of Sarov, and Vedanayagam Samuel Azariah
- The Tenth Day of Christmas - January 3 - Ten Lords a Leaping
- Memorial of the Holy Name of Jesus
- Feasts for Daniel of Padua, Genevieve, Kuriakose Elias Chavara, Pope Anterus, and William Passavant
- The Eleventh Day of Christmas - January 4 - Eleven Pipers Piping
- Feasts for Angela of Foligno, Elizabeth Ann Seton, Ferreol of Uzes, Mavilus, Pharaildis of Ghent, and Rigobert
- The Twelfth Day of Christmas - January 5 - Twelve Drummers Drumming
- Twelfth Night, forever memorialized as the title for one of Shakespeare's works
- Feasts for Charles of Mount Argus, John Neumann, Pope Telesphorus, and Simeon Stylites
- Epiphany - January 6 - We Three Kings
A celebratory season indeed. And an opportunity for a lot that we in our faith forget over the Christmas story.