The 12 Days of Christmas – Complete History and Story

Most Western countries are familiar with the festive song ‘12 Days of Christmas.’ It’s a fun ditty that describes twelve days of gift-giving in the countdown to Christmas Day.

While its origins are unclear – some say it’s an old children’s rhyme, others believe it hides coded messages – it’s become a staple of the holiday season.

The question is, what does it all mean? Who’s gifting six geese a-laying and, let’s be honest, who’d want to receive them? It sounds like a lot of responsibility.

At least the five gold rings don’t need feeding (or a pond). Fortunately, 12 Days of Christmas is a largely metaphorical song, though it celebrates a special time.

The first thing to know is 12 Days of Christmas doesn’t refer to the countdown to Christmas Day.

It starts on Christmas Day (the first day) and ends twelve days later on January 5th or ‘Twelfth Night.’ It’s a period that has been celebrated throughout Europe since before the Middle Ages.

Traditionally, each day represents a feast day for a saint and their respective characteristics or services.

For example, Boxing Day celebrates martyrs because its saint, St Stephen, died for his religious beliefs.

Twelve Days of Christmas: A Festive Exploration

Day 1 (December 25):

  • Gift: A partridge in a pear tree.
  • Significance: The partridge is considered a symbol of Christ. The gift represents the start of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Day 2 (December 26):

  • Gift: Two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.
  • Significance: The addition of turtle doves symbolizes peace and love.

Day 3 (December 27):

  • Gift: Three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.
  • Significance: French hens represent faith, hope, and charity—three virtues emphasized in Christianity.

Day 4 (December 28):

  • Gift: Four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.
  • Significance: The “calling birds” likely refer to various songbirds. The gifts continue to accumulate.

Day 5 (December 29):

  • Gift: Five golden rings, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.
  • Significance: The golden rings are interpreted in various ways, including representing the first five books of the Old Testament or the five major divisions of the Psalms.

Day 6 (December 30):

  • Gift: Six geese a-laying, five golden rings, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.
  • Significance: The geese are sometimes linked to laying eggs, representing fertility and productivity.

Day 7 (December 31):

  • Gift: Seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying, five golden rings, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.
  • Significance: Swans are seen as elegant birds, and their addition adds to the festive and extravagant nature of the gifts.

Day 8 (January 1):

  • Gift: Eight maids a-milking, seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying, five golden rings, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.
  • Significance: The maids a-milking are considered to represent the eight beatitudes.

Day 9 (January 2):

  • Gift: Nine ladies dancing, eight maids a-milking, seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying, five golden rings, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.
  • Significance: The dancing ladies add a lively and celebratory element to the gifts.
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Day 10 (January 3):

  • Gift: Ten lords a-leaping, nine ladies dancing, eight maids a-milking, seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying, five golden rings, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.
  • Significance: The lords a-leaping bring a sense of festivity and grandeur to the celebration.

Day 11 (January 4):

  • Gift: Eleven pipers piping, ten lords a-leaping, nine ladies dancing, eight maids a-milking, seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying, five golden rings, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.
  • Significance: The pipers piping contributes to the musical and joyful atmosphere of the celebration.

Day 12 (January 5):

  • Gift: Twelve drummers drumming, eleven pipers piping, ten lords a-leaping, nine ladies dancing, eight maids a-milking, seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying, five golden rings, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.
  • Significance: The grand finale of drummers drumming completes the elaborate and lively scene, concluding the Twelve Days of Christmas festivities.

Epiphany (January 6):

  • The Twelve Days of Christmas culminate in the celebration of Epiphany, commemorating the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus.

The Twelve Days of Christmas have been celebrated in various ways throughout history, with traditions evolving and adapting across different cultures and regions. The song serves as a festive and cumulative reflection of the joyous spirit of the holiday season.

The History of the Twelfth Night Celebration

The Twelfth Night celebration has historical roots deeply connected to the Christian liturgical calendar and the Christmas season. Here’s an exploration of the history of the Twelfth Night celebration:

Twelfth Night Celebration

1. Origins:

  • Medieval Tradition: The Twelfth Night celebration has medieval origins and is linked to the Christian feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany, observed on January 6th, commemorates the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus.
  • Symbolic Duration: The Twelve Days of Christmas, beginning on December 25th and culminating on January 6th, were symbolic of the journey of the Magi. The Twelfth Night marks the end of this festive period.

2. Feast of Fools and Misrule:

  • Role Reversals: In medieval and Renaissance Europe, Twelfth Night was associated with the Feast of Fools or the Feast of Misrule. Traditional social norms were inverted during this time, and role reversals were encouraged.
  • Lord of Misrule: A “Lord of Misrule” would be appointed to oversee the revelries, and commoners might temporarily hold authority over nobility.

3. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night:

  • Literary Connection: William Shakespeare’s play “Twelfth Night,” written around 1601, is believed to have been composed for the festivities of Twelfth Night. The play explores themes of love, mistaken identity, and the topsy-turvy nature of the season.
  • Role of the Lord of Misrule: The character of Sir Toby Belch in the play reflects the spirit of the Lord of Misrule, embodying the festive and disorderly atmosphere associated with Twelfth Night celebrations.

4. Twelfth Night Cake and Celebrations:

  • Feasting and Merriment: Twelfth Night was marked by grand feasts and merriment. Families and communities came together for elaborate meals, music, and dancing.
  • King Cake: Like other European traditions, the Twelfth Night cake, a rich fruitcake, was central to the celebrations. A bean or a figurine would be hidden in the cake, and the person who found it would be crowned the “king” or “queen” of the night’s festivities.

5. Decline and Transformation:

  • Cultural Shifts: With the changing religious and cultural landscape, especially after the Protestant Reformation and the rise of Puritanism, Twelfth Night celebrations’ extravagant and sometimes rowdy nature declined.
  • Secularization: Twelfth Night became more secularized over time, and its association with religious observance diminished. The festive traditions, however, continued in various forms.
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6. Modern Revival:

  • Contemporary Celebrations: Twelfth Night celebrations have experienced a revival in various forms. Some communities and organizations organize historical reenactments, feasts, or productions of Shakespeare’s play.
  • King Cake in Different Cultures: The tradition of hiding a trinket in a cake and crowning someone as king or queen is still present in various forms, such as the King Cake in Mardi Gras celebrations in some regions.

7. Global Variations:

  • Diverse Practices: Different cultures and regions have unique Twelfth Night practices. In some places, the night is marked by processions; in others, it’s celebrated with special foods and drinks.
  • Chalking the Door: In some Christian traditions, homes are blessed by marking the door with chalk on Epiphany, connecting the practice with the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Learn More With the Help of Video

Main Points About 12 Days of Christmas

  1. The 12 days of Christmas is the span between the birth of baby Jesus and the visit of the Magi.
  2. Also known as the twelve tides, the 12 days of Christmas is festivity to celebrate the nativity of Jesus.
  3. The 12 days of Christmas begin on the 25th day of December and run through till the 6th Day of January.
  4. The last day of the 12 days of Christmas is known as the Epiphany. It is also called the day of the Three Kings.
  5. Sometimes, during the 12 days of Christmas, some families like to observe other feasts or days set aside for Saints.

Conclusion

From 25th December till 5th January, it’s known as 12 days of Christmas. 25th December is the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. 5th January is observed as Epiphany.

This would be a new piece of information for my readers following other religions apart from Christianity. For Christians, this should be a reference to the exact significance of each day before Epiphany.

Word Cloud for 12 Days of Christmas

The following is a collection of the most used terms in this article on 12 Days of Christmas. This should help you recall related terms as used in this article at a later stage.

12 Days of Christmas
References
  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Twelve_Days_of_Christmas_(song)
  2. https://www.vox.com/2015/12/25/10661878/12-days-of-christmas-explained
  3. https://people.howstuffworks.com/culture-traditions/holidays-christmas/twelve-days-christmas.htm

Last Updated : 24 November, 2023

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