The Twelve Days of Christmas

The Twelve Days of Christmas

A Christmas Eve Ball at Mount Vernon by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1798.

Christmas Day has come and gone but the party carries on for those of us who abide by the notion that Christmas lasts twelve days. Yes, like the song, but no, the actual days have little to do with fowl. In Jane Austen’s time, Christmas celebrations reached their climax on Twelfth Night (January 5th in the Church of England), when gifts were exchanged and elaborate parties thrown. Over the centuries, the significance of this special time of year has been lost for most of us outside of the very observant, but vestiges of these traditions remain. When I was living in Ireland in the early 90s, I was introduced to the idea of leaving the Christmas tree up until the 6th. It was the first time I realized there really were twelve days of Christmas, but the notion has thrilled me ever since (if nothing else, it gives me a good excuse to enjoy the tree a little bit longer).

So what are the twelve days? Let’s explore each one.

Day One: Christmas Day! Celebrating the birth of Jesus. So far, pretty straight forward.

Day Two: St. Stephan’s Day. Also known as Boxing Day in the UK, it was traditionally the time to give gifts to the poor and to those who worked for you. Some tie this tradition to the story of Good King Wenceslas (my absolute favorite Christmas carol), which takes place “on the feast of Stephen.”

Day Three: Feast of St. John the Apostle. It’s also my little boy’s birthday (he turned one yesterday). Traditionally, priests would do a special blessing over wine on the 27th, so that parishioners could drink to “St. John’s Love.” It is said that he once drank poisoned wine and survived due to his having blessed it.

Day Four: Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents. I hate this story of King Herod killing all the baby boys under aged two in Bethlehem in an attempt to target Jesus. It’s so painful. Whether true or not (and there is a great deal of debate about it), cultures throughout the world commemorate the occasion with child-centric celebrations. In Europe, it used to be called the Feast of Fools, a day on which children would take over the responsibilities of their elders, particularly important clerical roles like Bishop, until the practice was condemned by the Counsel of Basel in 1431. The day is perhaps best known in popular culture for the haunting Coventry Carol, composed in the 16th century. You can listen to it here:

Day Five: Feast of St. Thomas Becket. December 29th is the actual anniversary of the former Archbishop of Canterbury’s martyrdom in 1170.

Day Six: Feast of St. Egwin of Worcester. Not a name with which most are familiar. The 7th century bishop was the descendant of Mercian kings and founded Evesham Abbey. He died of natural causes on December 30th.

Day Seven: New Year’s Eve is also St. Sylvester’s feast day. He was Pope from 314 to 335 AD. He is said to have baptized Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, and cured him of leprosy. In German speaking regions (like where I live in Switzerland), New Year’s Eve is still called Silvesternacht.

Day Eight: One of many Marian feast days throughout the year, January 1st is known as the Solemnity of Mary, Holy Mother of God. As this celebration is focused on her aspect as a mother, it’s a great time to call yours wish her very special New Year.

Day Nine: The Feasts of St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen. Both were important 4th century christians, and along with Gregory of Nyssa they are known as the Cappadocian Fathers. However, St. Basil is the big star of the show, particularly in the Greek Orthodox church, where his feast is celebrated on New Year’s Day with parties, dancing, bond fires, gift giving, and St. Basil’s Cake, or Vasilopita. This tradition is much like a Twelfth Night Cake, which we will get to shortly.

Day Ten: Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. This commemorates Jesus’ official naming in synagogue, a tradition still practiced in Jewish communities today.

Day Eleven: Feast of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native born American to be canonized by the Catholic Church. I’m having trouble finding out whose feast day this was before she was canonized in 1975. Can anyone help me out with this one? There are a number of other saints commemorated this day, but I do not know who was traditionally honored as part of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Day Twelve: Epiphany Eve or Twelfth Night. Also the Feast of St. John Neumann, the first Bishop in the United States to be canonized. Twelfth Night celebrations have a rich history in England, when the wassail flowed liberally and a king and queen of the festivities were chosen through the eating of Twelfth Night or King Cake. A pea (or coin) and a bean were baked inside. The woman who found the pea was queen while the bean-finding man became king. I really like this video of a traditional Twelfth Night cake recipe from the 18th Century Cooking gents.

8 Responses to The Twelve Days of Christmas

  1. Thank you for such an interesting post. We just returned from Danube River cruise and saw the wonderful Christmas markets. So festive especially for a Californian.

  2. Lovely lovely post. I live in Ireland and I wouldn’t dream of taking down the tree before the 6th of January. It was something I learned from my mother growing up and I keep the tradition going. If my daughter had her way the tree would be up all year. She just LOVES Christmas and does all the decorating and baking herself. Makes my life very easy:-). Hope everyone at Austen Authors had a lovely one.

  3. Although I live in Southern California, as an Anglican Christian, our family and church celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas. Our rector and his wife are ultra-correct in not putting up their Christmas tree until Christmas Eve; my kids would have my head if I made them wait that long! But we do keep our tree up until January 6. When the kids were little, we gave them their big “family gift” on Epiphany, thus keeping Christmas Day less focused on gifts. We celebrate the first four days of Christmas as noted above, but I’ve never kept the other saints’ days until Twelfth Night when we have a “burning of the greens” in our rector’s backyard (carefully, of course, as we Californians are afraid of starting fires!) and then a celebration of sherry and trifle–YUM!!! šŸ˜€ We used to have a King’s Cake on Epiphany, but now with the kids grown, we don’t tend to celebrate Epiphany as much. The kids used to move the Magi (also known in our family as “the wise guys”) a bit closer to the manger each day of Christmastide until they reached their places of worship by January 6th. We also read from a devotional called “Christ in the Carols” which gives the words of each carol and the history and significance of each song.

    Of course, all this follows the four Sundays of Advent which we celebrated not only in our Anglican church but also in our evangelical community church. We have an Advent wreath on our kitchen table, and when the kids were small, we’d take turns lighting the candle(s) and reading the Scripture for the day and then sharing the candies or small gifts tucked into the pocket for each day of Advent in our large (3 ft by 4 ft) Advent wall calendar sewn by my sister-in-law for our family back in 2001. So Adventide, Christmastide, and Epiphany are all part of our family practice and heritage. I’m thrilled to read of additional saints’ days for the other days of Christmastide!! Thank you for a lovely post!!

    Wishing everyone a joyous Christmastide,
    Susanne šŸ™‚

  4. I have never celebrated 12 days of Christmas. Perhaps, I convince my family to give it a try in the future. At the very least I should be able to convince them to leave the tree up a little longer.

  5. In my family, we always leave the tree up until January 6. It is a bad omen to do otherwise. I was joking the other evening after the grandkids had Christmas at my house that I was going to take the tree down the next day. My son said my mother’s ghost would haunt me if I did. He is probably correct. I still have my small mincemeat pies each of the 12 days. WhyChristmas.com tells us, “Mince Pies, like Christmas Puddings, were originally filled with meat, such as lamb, rather than the dried fruits and spices mix as they are today. They were also first made in an oval shape to represent the manger that Jesus slept in as a baby, with the top representing his swaddling clothes. Sometimes they even had a ‘pastry baby Jesus’ on the top!

    “In the Stuart and Georgian times, in the UK, mince pies were a status symbol at Christmas. Very rich people liked to show off at their Christmas parties by having pies made is different shapes (like stars, crescents, hearts, tears, & flowers); they fancy shaped pies could often fit together a bit like a jigsaw! They also looked like the ‘knot gardens’ that were popular during those periods. Having pies like this meant you were rich and could afford to employ the best, and most expensive, pastry cooks. Now they are normally made in a round shape and are eaten hot or cold.

    “A custom from the Middle Ages says that if you eat a mince pie on every day from Christmas to Twelfth Night (evening of the 5th January) you will have happiness for the next 12 months! On Christmas Eve, children in the UK often leave out mince pies with brandy or some similar drink for Father Christmas, and a carrot for the reindeer.”

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