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What are the 12 Days of Christmas, and what do they mean?

5 min read

The 12 Days of Christmas are now most popular as a song about someone receiving lots of presents from their ‘true love’.
However, to get to the song there had to be twelve days to start with!

Traditionally, the 12 Days of Christmas start on Christmas Day and last until the evening of the 5th January, also known not by chance as Twelfth Night.
They have been celebrated in Europe since before the middle ages and were a time of celebration.
They were created in 567 at the Council of Tours as a way of bringing together the two dates which difference parts of the Christian church celebrated Christmas: the Western Church celebrated Christmas on 25th December, while the Eastern Church celebrated it on 6th January, also known as Epiphany.
Christians believe that the 12 days of Christmas mark the amount of time it took after the birth of Jesus for the magi, or wise men, to travel to Bethlehem for the Epiphany when they recognized him as the son of God.
The specific time period was likely part of the early church’s effort to adapt pre-Christian celebrations that helped the ancient Europeans get through the long winter nights.
Today, how—and when—the 12 days are celebrated by Christians around the world varies. Eastern Orthodox churches use a different religious calendar, so their 12 days of Christmas start on January 7 and run through the Epiphany on January 19. And while Catholics celebrate the Epiphany as a single day, some Protestant churches celebrate it until Ash Wednesday, leading into the season of Lent and Easter.
Gift-giving customs also differ in some cultures. In some Latin American cultures, Christians hand out presents on Jan. 6, which they celebrate as Three Kings Day, instead of Dec. 25. And other cultures give gifts all 12 days, like a certain “true love” we’re familiar with, thanks to the song!

In details, the 12 Days each traditionally celebrate a feast day for a saint and/or have different celebrations. According to tradition:
Day 1, 25th December, is Christmas Day, celebrating the Birth of Jesus
Day 2, 26th December also known as Boxing Day, is St Stephen’s Day. He was the first Christian martyr , or someone who dies for their faith, and It’s also the day when the Christmas Carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’ takes place.
Day 3, 27th December, is St John the Apostle, one of Jesus’s Disciples and friends.
Day 4, 28th December, is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, when people remember the baby boys which King Herod killed when he was trying to find and kill the Baby Jesus.
Day 5, 29th December, is St Thomas Becket, who was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th century, murdered on this day 1170 for challenging the King’s authority over the Church.
Day 6, 30th December, is St Egwin of Worcester.
Day 7, 31st December, is New Year’s Eve, known as Hogmanay in Scotland. Pope Sylvester I is traditionally celebrated on this day and he was one of the earliest popes, in the 4th Century. In many central and eastern European countries including Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Slovakia, Switzerland and Slovenia, New Year’s Eve is still sometimes called ‘Silvester’. In the UK, New Year’s Eve was a traditional day for games and sporting competitions. Archery was a very popular sport and during the middle ages it was the law that it had to be practised by all men between ages 17-60 on Sunday after Church! This was so the King had lots of very good archers ready in case he need to go to war.
Day 8, 1st January, is celebrated Mary, the Mother of Jesus.
Day 9, 2nd January, is St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen, two important 4th century Christians.
Day 10, 3rd January, is the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, that remembers when Jesus was officially ‘named’ in the Jewish Temple. It’s celebrated by different churches on a wide number of different dates!
Day 11, 4th January, is St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American saint, who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Day 12, 5th January and also known as Epiphany Eve, is St. John Neumann, who was the first Bishop in America and so far the only US male citizen to become a saint. He lived in the 19th century and, in some churches, it’s also the Saint’s day of St Simeon Stylites the Elder, who lived on a small platform on the top of a pillar for 37 years!

Twelfth Night was a big time of celebration with people holding large parties, in which often the roles in society were reversed with the servants being served by the rich people. This dated back to medieval and Tudor times when Twelfth Night marked the end of ‘winter’ which had started on 31st October with All Hallows Eve, our Halloween.
At the start of Twelfth Night the Twelfth Night cake was eaten, a rich cake made with eggs and butter, fruit, nuts and spices.
The modern Italian Panettone is the cake we currently have that’s most like the old Twelfth Night cake.
A dried pea or bean was cooked in the cake and, whoever found it, was the Lord (or Lady) of Misrule for night, who led the celebrations and was dressed like a King (or Queen), a tradition that goes back to the Roman celebrations of Saturnalia.

During Twelfth Night it was traditional for different types of bagpipes to be played.
The first Monday after the Christmas feast has finished was known as ‘Plough Monday’ as this was when farming work would all begin again, while in many parts of the UK, people also went Wassailing on Twelfth Night.
Twelfth Night is also known as Epiphany Eve and, in many countries it’s traditional to put the figures of the Wise Men/Three Kings into the Nativity Scene ready to celebrate Epiphany on the 6th January.

It’s also traditional to take your Christmas decorations down following Twelfth Night!