The 12 Days of Christmas, or… The Holidays are NOT over yet!

The 12 Days of Christmas, or… The Holidays are NOT over yet!

We are all familiar with the Christmas song The Twelve Days of Christmas. To be honest, this song annoys me in how repetitious and endless it is! Perhaps that is why I never contemplated what the song meant or what its origins were. I finally did research, and ironically it is the very aspect of the song I find so annoying which makes the history fascinating. The song itself (originally a poem from France) is an interesting history respective of the twelve days alluded to. This blog isn’t about the song or poem, so if interested in that history, here are four links: Wikipedia    Brownielocks (a nice summation of the prominent theories)   AboutEntertainment (very specific article)  HymsAndCarolsForChristmas (even more specific!).   The only point I will make here on this topic is that those who believe the song of Christian origins, or an “underground” catechism chant… that is simply untrue and not borne by the historical facts. The last two links cover this false narrative thoroughly.

Now, where the song ties in to the topic for today is that contrary to modern tradition (especially here in the US) applying the gifting days of the song to the twelve days before Christmas, the actual twelve days are referring to the interval between Christmas (December 25) and the Church’s designated Day of Epiphany (January 6). Or, in case you haven’t yet made the connection, the period we are now in. Which means: Christmas is not over yet! So don’t take that tree down, ya hear me?

The Epiphany has been revered by all the Western and Eastern Orthodox churches for some 2000 years. Epiphany commemorates the day the Magi finished their lengthy travel, and appeared to gift the newly born Christ Child in Bethlehem. Calendars have varied and altered, but always the two days (Christmas and Epiphany) have fallen in a roughly twelve day interval. No one seems to know precisely why, although the number 12 does have Biblical significance (12 Apostles, 12 Tribes of Israel, 12 Minor Prophets, etc.).

Next, let me take a moment to explain the difference between TWELFTH NIGHT and the TWELVE DAYS.

In ancient traditions, the night preceding a sanctified day was often hailed as the special, commemorative time ushering in the observation. Hence our now common practice to celebrate “Eves” such as Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. In the case of the twelve days of Christmas, however, it was NOT the night before Christmas (the 24th) that was important in initiating the 12 day count, but the night of Christmas. Therefore, the evening of the 25th would be “First Night” with “First Day” following on December 26. Thus, January 5th would be the “Twelfth Night” with “Twelfth Day” on January 6.

Feasting and parties of a sometimes raucous nature throughout this entire period were standard. They began ON Christmas day, (after the solemn church services were over) and festivities culminated on January 5th, or “Twelfth Night”, usually in a supreme blast of fun. The Day of Epiphany (January 6) was another solemn day of religious observation, and officially ended the Christmas season. It also marked the end of the entire winter festival season, which began on All Hallow’s Eve in October. Historically it does not appear that New Year’s Eve or Day was celebrated in any special way; however, many of the traditions throughout were steeped in the concept of luck and fortune traveling from one year into the next.

As one can imagine with a holiday of such long duration and historical breadth, the customs varied widely and had origins not only ancient but from numerous cultures across Europe. Religious observances and charity works were top on the list during the weeks surrounding Christmas. But the bulk of the actual Twelfth Night silliness seems to have foundations in pagan folklore of a highly superstitious nature.

During Tudor England (1485-1603, the reign of the Tudor dynasty) this twelve-day period of festivities was a time for all normal relationships to be altered and for proper standards to relax. Masters would wait on their servants, women would dress like men and vice versa, and a Lord of Misrule would reign with the express intent to subvert and reverse the natural order of things. Many of these practices were steeped in pagan traditions and fell out of favor by the end of the Elizabethan Era. William Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, Or What You Will was written in 1600 as a comedic take on the craziness of the customs, and was specifically staged on Twelfth Night of 1601 for Queen Elizabeth herself. The decades and centuries following Queen Elizabeth’s reign were a bit more subdued and conventional, although the Romantic Period of the Georgian and Regency Eras did embrace all forms of frivolous fun.

The concept of having a major ball on the final night of the season was very common. It was a way to go out with a major bang and to welcome the Day of Epiphany. Masquerade Balls have their own history and are not tied exclusively to Twelfth Night, or any other particular holiday for that matter, although they do have partial roots in the Medieval fashion of ‘masquerading’ as someone else.

Served foods were generally spicy, hot, and exotic. Ginger snaps, spiced ales, mulled wine, fruited cakes, mince pies, and hot ciders were customary. Wassail is a concoction that varied from place to place, but was always a hot spiced wine or ale of some kind specifically drank at winter holiday feasts. The name itself derives from Old Norse and Old English salutes that translated, “be thou hale” or “be in good health”, and were a sort of blessing for the coming year. Pieces of toasted bread were added to the drink, sopping up the flavor and eaten as an added treat. It is from this custom to pass the large bowl around the room with yelled declarations of Wes Hal! that we now get our term “toasting.” Another variation of wassail called “lamb’s wool” added roasted apples to float on top, the heat causing the apples to burst open and create a layer of foamy, white resembling wool. There are traditions surrounding the custom of wassailing, exclusive of Twelfth Night, all intended to supernaturally usher in good luck and fertility from the dormant land.

The King Cake was an elaborately festooned, enormous, round shaped dessert – usually a dense fruitcake – with a hidden bean, pea, or coin. In some traditions the finder of the token became King or Queen, and was then required to choose his or her ruling mate for the evening. In other traditions there are two cakes for each sex (or one cake with the tokens carefully placed on opposite sides) and the finders are declared the Night’s sovereigns. These mock monarchs are clearly the descendants of the Medieval King of Misrule, and their task was to ensure frivolity throughout the night with ridiculous demands that everyone had to obey. This poem by 17th century poet Robert Herrick sums it up nicely:



Twelfth Night Characters: The King and Queen. Illustrations by Richard Doyle published in the Illustrated London News on January 1, 1848

Now, now, the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where bean is the king of the sport here;
Beside we must know,
The pea also
Must revel as queen in the court here.

Begin then to choose
This night as ye use,
Who shall for the present delight here;
Be a king by the lot,
And who shall not
Be Twelfth-day
Queen for the night here.

Which known, let us make
Joy-sops with the cake;
And let not a man then be seen here,
Who unurg’d will not drink
To the base from the brink
A health to the King and the Queen here.

Next crown the bowl full
With gentle lambs-wool;
Add sugar, nutmeg and ginger,
With store of ale too;
And thus ye must do
To make the wassail a swinger.

Give then to the King
And Queen wassailing;
And though with ale ye be wet here;
Yet part ye from hence,
As free from offence
As when ye innocent met here.


Medieval Mummers

Mummer’s Plays were almost always performed. “Mummer” comes from the Old French word momer, meaning: to wear a mask. From these plays we also derive our word “mum”, as these Mummer Plays – also known as Mummings or Guiser’s Plays – typically included silent pantomimes. The origins of mummer plays are so ancient that the exact types of performances are impossible to pinpoint. In fact, they included all forms of street-troupe actors and minstrels. This is a fascinating history all of its own and too involved for me to do justice here. If interested, start on Wikipedia where a great article is listed with numerous external links. Another terrific resource is Family Christmas Online. Whether a Mummer’s Play or some other theatrical performance, a production of this type was an essential part of a Twelfth Night celebration.

As the official end of the season it was also time to take down all Christmas decorations, including holly and mistletoe. This was done on Twelfth Day with much pomp and circumstance, especially in regards to the Yule Log. This ancient, sacred symbol of good luck and protection was kept smoldering throughout the entire twelve day period, after which the ashes were scattered over fields to promote fertility, and the remaining fragments of wood were saved to kindle the next year’s yule log.

In some parts of England the lighting of massive bonfires was part of the merriment. This too had roots in pagan worship to the spirits who protected the crops and fields where the fire was lit, but there was also the tradition to light twelve separate fires to symbolize the religious significance of the season. Whatever the case, dancing, feasting, and singing around the fire was another lively entertainment that people enjoyed unconcerned with where the custom originated.



Today is December 28th, or the “third day of Christmas” when 3 French Hens are to be gifted. A “French hen” is a breed of chicken, called faverolles, so they can be male or female. I suppose the ones to the right are cute enough, as chickens go. But to be honest, the trio below is more appealing to me! I doubt I, or any of you, will be presented with even one French hen, so I guess we don’t need to fret over our options! I suspect we each fared better this Christmas than birds of any species, dancing pipers, or leaping lords. Although, five gold rings, preferably with a gemstone attached, would be acceptable. As for me, I am, as this blog publishes, on my way home from 5 days in Disney World. My gifts are fabulous memories of the Happiest Place on Earth and Mickey Mouse-themed souvenirs. Yippee! I apologize for not responding to any comments until later today, or probably tomorrow. I pray y’all had a marvelous Christmas and wish for the happiest of New Years.

12 Responses to The 12 Days of Christmas, or… The Holidays are NOT over yet!

  1. Very interesting, thanks for sharing! The only 12 Days of Christmas I enjoy is Twisted Sister’s Heavy Metal Christmas. Today would be “Three Studded Belts”

    Merry Christmas!!

  2. Thanks for such an informative post, Sharon. Personally, I’ve always loved “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. It was always a family challenge to remember the order in which the items appear, especially from “six” upwards when I was growing up.

    Our decoration always come down on the sixth, apart from one set of lights. They’re put up on November 1st (All Saints’ Day) and come down on February 2nd (Candlemas). In our very old house (over 250 years), we have a large beam running across the ceiling in our dining room and it’s always been a tradition in my husband’s family to have a set of lights running along it. They give such a cosy feel to the room that the length of time they’re up for has grown over the years. The dates were eventually settled by my late mother-in-law a couple of years before she passed away in 2004 and we’ve maintained that ever since.

  3. Wow, information overload. I always wait for epiphany to take down my tree. Can’t imagine following all those other customs though. Happy New Year. Thanks for the information.

  4. Thank you, Sharon, these are fascinating! I wish we still had the Lord of Misrule! In general, it sounds like these customs were livelier than the customs we carry out today.

  5. Thank you Sharon, I could never decide if I should take down the decorations on 5th or 6th and now I know. I enjoyed this post. I’m so glad you enjoyed Christmas at Disneyland it must have been a magical experience. Have a safe journey home.

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