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Is “The Twelve Days of Christmas!” just a song? Nope! Learn what this festive celebration is all about—and when the 12 days start (and end). It’s a fascinating look at our fun Christmas traditions. Plus, find out how much those 12 gifts would cost today!
WHAT Are the 12 Days of Christmas
For many Western Christian denominations, the Twelve Days of Christmas, or Christmastide, is a 12-day festive religious season that celebrates the Nativity of Jesus. The twelve days represent the time that it took for the three wise men or kings to travel to Bethlehem to visit baby Jesus and offer him gifts. In certain Eastern Orthodox denominations, it is instead a celebration of the time from Christ’s birth to his baptism.
This festival season is basically a series of religious feast days—as well as a constant stream of feasts, entertaining, and merry-making!
The festival season, which begins on Christmas Day (December 25), ends on the evening of January 5 (called Twelfth Night); this marks the end of Christmas festivities and, in ancient Celtic tradition, the end of the 12-day winter solstice celebration.
The Twelve Days of Christmas festival season is nearly forgotten in the United States for various reasons, but some traditions survived, as did some religious feast days for practicing Christians.
WHEN Are the 12 Days of Christmas
Unlike today’s Advent calendar, which leads up to Christmas Day, the Twelve Days of Christmas are AFTER Jesus’s birth.
The 12 Days of Christmas was traditionally celebrated from December 25 to January 5 (which we’ll explain in this article). But some people celebrate the day after Christmas (December 26) through Epiphany (January 6). Still, others say it goes from the sunset of Dec 24 to the sunset of the day before Epiphany.
So, it can get confusing. What it definitely is NOT is the 12 days BEFORE Christmas.
In addition, for many denominations, Epiphany is now observed on the first Sunday after the first Saturday in January, perhaps for practical calendar reasons.
Note: For Eastern Orthodox churches that use the (Old) Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian calendar used by Western churches, Christmas is observed on January 7 (Gregorian date converted from Julian date of December 25), and the twelve days are from January 7 through January 18. Epiphany is observed on January 19. Some Eastern Orthodox churches follow the Revised (New) Julian calendar, which uses the Julian calendar for movable religious observances and currently matches the Gregorian calendar dates for fixed religious observances, in which case Christmas is celebrated on December 25 (Gregorian date).
In the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” a suitor sends his sweetheart a gift on the first day of Christmas and then repeats that gift and adds one more each day through the 12 days.
On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me A partridge in a pear tree
On the second day of Christmas my true love sent to me Two turtle doves, And a partridge in a pear tree.
On the third day of Christmas my true love sent to me Three French hens, Two turtle doves, And a partridge in a pear tree.
And so on. The climax of the song is, “five golden rings!” According to one theory, this actually refers to “goldspinks,” a Scottish word for goldfinches, making the first seven gifts all birds.
What Would the 12 Gifts Cost Today?
By the end of the song “Twelve Days of Christmas,” the recipient has received a total of 364 gifts!! That’s one gift for almost every day of the year. But just where do you keep 42 swans a-swimming?
No one’s quite sure why there were so many gifts every day for this lucky lady. We only know that the 12 days were indeed a time of song, merriment, and gift-giving.
Plus, here’s a fun fact: The cost of the gifts from the song would total $46,729.86 today! This is based on an annual Christmas Price Index, a whimsical report that tracks yearly prices.
Why would you want to give ten lords-a-leaping to your sweetheart? Who knows, but the Christmas Price Index is a fun tradition that’s now in its 40th year.
How the 12 Days Were Celebrated
In medieval and Tudor times, people fasted in the four weeks leading up to Christmas Day. So, it’s no surprise that there was so much feasting as soon as Christmas Day arrived!
The 12 Days were all about hospitality and merriment after a long year of hard work and harvesting. Most people didn’t work throughout the 12 Days of Christmas festivities. They wouldn’t even use their spinning wheels.
Remember that this was a dormant time for an agricultural society. They didn’t have office jobs. Might as well make the most of the darkest days of winter and keep each other company!
Here are some of the highlights:
The First Day of Christmas The 12 Days begin on Christmas Day because this is the day that celebrates Jesus’ birth. In ancient times, the day began with Midnight Mass. (Note that in certain denominations, Christmas begins on December 24 at sundown.) The church bells rang, candles were lit, and the celebrations kicked off.
Everyone enjoyed a huge feast together on this “first day” of Christmas. The feast traditionally included roasted meats (poultry, venison, boar) and stuffing, followed by mince pies, puddings, and gingerbread.
On a related note, people did not decorate their homes until Christmas Eve. The holly, ivy, mistletoe, tree, and wreath are evergreens, symbolizing the eternal life that Jesus brought with his birth. It was considered bad luck to put them up early.
The greens stayed up for the 12 days from Christmas through Twelfth Night. Then, the decorations would be taken down on Epiphany morning (January 6).
The Second Day of Christmas Do you know of the Christmas song, ’Good King Wenceslas’? It’s about the Feast of St Stephen, which falls on the 26th of December.
Good King Wenceslas looked out On the Feast of Stephen When the snow lay round about Deep and crisp and even.
St. Stephen was known for helping the poor. In England, alms (charity) church boxes were opened to share with the needy.
The Third Day of Christmas The 27th of December is the feast of St. John. This feast day involves a lot of wine. Why? According to legend, St. John drinks a glass of poisoned wine, yet he survives because he blesses the wine before he puts it to his lips.
On this day, the wealthy folks drank their finest wines. And everyone, rich and poor, would toast during assembled company from the wassail bowl. In Old English, “wassail” means “Be in good health,” but the term was also applied to the drink, a hot ale with spices, sugar, and apples.
People would pass a large wooden bowl of wassail around. The first person starting the bowl would shout “Wassail!” and drink; the next person would shout, “Drinkhail!” and drink, and so on. Make your own wassail!
The Seventh and Eighth Day of Christmas In medieval days and Tudor times, New Year’s Eve was a game for playing sports and games, including fun winter festivals on ice.
New Year’s Day was the more traditional day to give gifts, not Christmas. Often, the gifts were money or fine trinkets. It was common for gifts to be presented to monarchs and for monarchies to give gifts to their subjects.
The Twelfth Day of Christmas: Twelfth Night! Twelfth Night marked the end of merry-making before the feast of Epiphany (January 6), when the wise men arrived at the Nativity to pay homage to Jesus.
You may know the term “Twelfth Night” because it’s the title of one of Shakespeare’s plays. Also, many folks may be familiar with the “King Cake,” which was the traditional Twelfth Night cake because it’s a common cake served in New Orleans during Mardi Gras season.
The King Cake traditionally has a coin or dried bean hidden in the cake. This was also a tradition in the ancient times of the Roman Saturnalia. The “king of the feast” was elected by beans. Whoever was given the slice with the prize became the queen and king for the night, and much parading and partying followed. Bake a King Cake with a lucky bean inside!
Twelfth Night was also celebrated with entertainment, games, and a final banquet-style feast. There was often a “masque,” which is a type of play.
The British “panto” or pantomime is echoed in modern-day Christmas festivities; in this silly Christmastime performance, the female lead is played by a man, and a woman plays the male lead.
January 6: Epiphany Epiphany is also known as Three Kings Day. According to the Gospels of the New Testament, the Magi, the three wise men (or kings), brought gifts to the infant Jesus on this date.
The word epiphany is not specific to Christianity, as Zeus’s alias, Epiphanes, can attest. It comes from the Greek epiphaneia, meaning “manifestation.”
Catherine Boeckmann loves nature, stargazing, and gardening so it’s not surprise that she and The Old Farmer’s Almanac found each other. She leads digital content for the Almanac website, and is also a certified master gardener in the state of Indiana. Read More from Catherine Boeckmann