How many of us have wondered about the lyrics to the classic carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” while we sing the merry tune? Have you been asking yourself when it is that these 12 days actually take place, and why such an odd number of days and since we are on the subject, what is the story behind these peculiar gifts?
Well, I am a little embarrassed to admit that I thought the 12 days led up to Christmas Eve, so that they kicked off on December 12th, when in fact Christian theology designates it as the period between the birth of Christ and the coming of the Magi, which marks the time it took the three wise men to reach Jesus. It begins on December 25 (Christmas) and runs through January 6. Clearly, I must have been daydreaming in class again when this was taught and missed the important historical references. That makes a lot more sense, because Christians are already in the midst of the Advent leading up to Christmas.
I have also learned today, that every one of the 12 days celebrates a different saint, from St. John the Apostle on December 27 to the Virgin Mary on January 1.
How and when the 12 days now 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.
On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me:
- 12 Drummers Drumming
- 11 Pipers Piping
- 10 Lords a-Leaping
- 9 Ladies Dancing
- 8 Maids a-Milking
- 7 Swans a-Swimming
- 6 Geese a-Laying
- 5 Golden Rings
- 4 Calling Birds
- 3 French Hens
- 2 Turtle Doves
- and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.
It is a catchy tune, and slightly difficult to remember and if you think the the lyrics sound a bit dated—you are right. That is because the song was likely written in the late 1700s, (there is a printed version with accompanying music dating back to 1780) and it is believed to have been created as a memory game for kids, or a forfeit game, challenging each other to sing off the lyrics in the right order when it was their turn or be eliminated. Hence why it is so repetitive.
It is no longer practical for us to entertain twelve days of celebration and feasts after Christmas but many households in North America and other nations still celebrate some aspects of the Twelve Days of Christmas. We have retained some of the traditions such as Boxing Day, and still consume some of the foods such as plum pudding (or fruit cake) and roasted goose (turkey). Some households exchange gifts on the first (25 December) and last (5 January) days of the Twelve Days. As in former times, the Twelfth Night to the morning of Epiphany is the traditional time during which Christmas decorations are removed and many have kept up the tradition of having King’s cake where whoever finds the bean hidden in the cake gets a gift.
If you are looking for other ways to mark the Twelve Days of Christmas, here are some suggestions that can still be fit in as we go back to work or school.
- 12 days of Meditation – Social Media calls these “challenges”, but you can chose to start each of your days between Christmas and Epiphany in meditation, prayer, or even silence.
- 12 days of Gratitude – You can never have too much gratitude and if you don’t already make it a habit to dedicate time to a gratitude journal, affirmation or intention then why not try it for 12 days either at the start or end your day
- 12 Dates of Christmas – Dedicate one or two hours of time with your significant other, as if on a date. Take walks together, read, watch movies, make dinner, spend time in conversation etc.
- 12 days of Charity There are numerous organizations that do so much good for the less fortunate. In twelve days you can help by volunteering, donating, and even promoting these charities such as food banks, animal shelters, immigrant services, homeless services, nursing homes, etc.
I like the idea of starting the new year dedicating oneself to improvement, whether it promotes personal development, stronger relationships or helping others. The knowledge that you’re helping others or investing in yourself or your relationship is hugely empowering and, in turn, can make you feel happier and more fulfilled. That ties in nicely with the spirit of Christmas which is to cultivate peace, love and acceptance and to help each other out on this precious journey.