What are the 12 Days of Christmas?

Where Did the 12 Days of Christmas Come From? While in America we might assume that the twelve days of Christmas are those leading up to Christmas day (“twelve shopping days left”), in actuality the traditional “Twelve Days of Christmas” are the twelve days beginning after Christmas day and ending on the traditional church calendar day of Epiphany, observed on January 6.

Epiphany

Epiphany, whose name derives from the Greek word epiphania meaning “manifestation” or “appearance,” is a celebration of the manifestation of Christ through his baptism or to the Gentiles in the visitation of the magi. While evidence for its existence can be traced to Gnostic heretics in the second century,[1] Epiphany first appears in the church in the East in the third century, “as a festival second only to Easter, where it was and still is associated with the baptism of Jesus.”[2] As Epiphany began to be observed in the West, the focus shifted to the visit of the magi as a celebration of Christ’s appearance to the Gentiles.[3]

In 567 A.D. the Council of Tours declared the twelve days following Christmas and ending on Epiphany to be a sacred festival. From this point on it has been widely celebrated in the church as a holiday, often with the forgoing of work that is not deemed essential.[4] There is some variation in the dating of the twelve days, as sometimes Christmas day itself is included and other times the following day is the starting point of the festival.[5] The “Twelfth Night” is the night of January 5th, the last day of the Christmas season and a time of great celebration.[6] Sometimes a special cake is eaten, called a “twelfth-night cake” or “king’s cake” in honor of the Wise Men.[7]

Origin of the Song

The song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is thought to be Gallic or French in origin, with its lines existing well before they are found in print.[8] Nevertheless, they first appear in a children’s book published in London around 1780, entitled Mirth without Mischief.[9] Here they are part of what was called a “fireside memory-and-forfeits game” called “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which was played “every Twelfth Day night before eating mince pies and twelfth cake.”[10] The game began with the leader reciting the “first day” lines, which were repeated in turn by every other player, followed by the “second day” and “first day” together, which was again repeated in turn, until the lines for all “twelve days” were recited by everyone.[11] If a mistake was made, the player paid a “forfeit.”[12] From around this time onward, variations of the game and lines of the song are found in other countries, such Scotland and France.[13]

Meaning of the Gifts

The precise meaning of the gifts is largely a matter of speculation. Half of the gifts are birds of different varieties, and possibly more, as the “five golden rings” may be a corruption of an original lyric referring to a bird, such as a goldfinch.[14] Also interesting is that the original lyric for “four calling birds” was actually “four colly birds,” which are blackbirds.[15] It has been suggested that the gifts may correspond to a specific food or sport for each month of the year.[16] Certainly the gifts seem to have a festival air about them, with “lords a-leaping,” “ladies dancing,” “pipers piping,” and “drummers drumming,” which may also help explain their curiousness.

A Deeper Meaning?

While many believe the meaning of the song does not go beyond a simple children’s song used as a game, others claim that it has served a deeper purpose. In 1994, Hugh D. McKellar published an article entitled, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” where he claimed that some older people he knew who had moved to Canada from northern England gave him reason to believe the song had deeper significance. His claim is that the song was a kind of veiled catechism during a period in England following the Reformation when Catholics were persecuted.[17] In his view, “The speaker is an ordinary Christian, whose ‘true love’ is, or should be, God. What else can account for the accumulative structure?”[18] McKellar suggests possibilities for each of the twelve days. Some examples include, among others: Christ as the first gift on Christmas day, followed by Joseph and Mary on the second, then the three Wise Men, the four major Old Testament prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, the five books of the Law, the six days of creation, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the eight non-Pauline epistles (or eight Beatitudes), the nine fruits of the Spirit, the Ten Commandments, the eleven surviving disciples after the resurrection, and the twelve articles of faith of the Apostles’ Creed.[19]

The idea has been popularized and has circulated on the Internet in recent years.[20] However, neither McKellar nor others provide any solid source material to substantiate their claims. While this does not necessarily rule out the possibility of a deeper meaning, the evidence upon which the hypothesis is built is thin. Thus, as interesting as it may be, unless stronger evidence surfaces the story will likely remain merely an interesting piece of modern Christmas folklore.[21] The song seems best left understood as a traditional children’s song that was often used as a game, the rhythmic structure of which has made it ideal for passing along from one generation to the next throughout a variety of cultures.


[1] Clement A. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance (New York: Dover Publications, 1976), 21.

[2] John Bowden, ed., Encyclopedia of Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 462.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Gerry Bowler, ed. The World Encyclopedia of Christmas (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2000), 230; Miles, Christmas Customs, 239.

[5] Miles, Christmas Customs, 239.

[6] Bowler, World Encyclopedia, 230.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott, eds. The New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 469.

[9] Iona and Peter Opie, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951), 122.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Lina Eckenstein, Comparative Studies in Nursery Rhymes (London: Duckworth and Co., 1906), 134.

[13] Ibid., 135-37; Keyte and Parrott, Book of Carols, 469.

[14] Keyte and Parrott, Book of Carols, 469. The ring-necked pheasant has also been suggested.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Opie, Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, 123.

[17] Hugh D. McKellar, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” The Hymn 45, no.4 (1994): 30-32.

[18] Ibid., 31.

[19] Ibid., 31-32.

[20] One example is an article from 1995 written by Fr. Hal Stockert on the Catholic Information Network website, entitled, “The Twelve Days of Christmas: An Underground Catechism” (http://www.cin.org/twelvday.html). An example in print is the description of the twelve days in Ace Collins, Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 178-83.

[21] Also the judgment of Bowler, World Encyclopedia, 231.

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