I’ve always assumed that the “12 days of christmas” was some sort of countdown to the launch of christmas day. Turns out I’m flat wrong about that. In fact, Christmas day on December 25th is only the first day of the twelve days worth of celebrations in Christianity, which has special events going on until January 6th. What happens each day is a bit of a hodge-podge of different beliefs, so I’ll pick out some highlights.
Christian or not, I’m sure you’ve heard that Christmas day, on December 25, is the birthday party for Jesus Christ. Now there is some debate whether or not Jesus was actually born on this date (not to mention the debate on whether or not Jesus was born at all) but nonetheless, we have the party on this day. For the majority of Christian cultures, this is the big day, and pretty much the only day, that garners much attention. Gifts are exchanged, feasts are prepared, and then we all go on our merry way with leftover turkey.
December 26, called “Boxing Day” in the British Commonwealth, has the reputation for being a frenzy of shopping delirium. The traditional significance is the feast of Saint Stephen. Perhaps the carol comes to mind, “Good King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen”. Well this is that day. The traditional way to celebrate is to share with those less fortunate, which is what the song chronicles.
Basically, all the days have some sort of feast in honour of some saint, martyr, or event of Jesus’ birth. January 1st, for example, is said to be a celebration of Christ’s circumcision, so it’s wholly appropriate for you to wake up in pain. Most of the middling celebrations have been all but dropped, yet the bookends are given plenty of attention.
The twelve days wrap up with a celebration called the Twelfth Night. Keeping in mind that the traditional twelfth night actually occurs before the twelfth day, as per the medieval understanding that a day ended at sunset. In Christianity this final day, the Day of Epiphany, marks the time that the “three wise men” arrive with gifts. As such, some people celebrate January 6th as the big day to exchange gifts.
The Twelfth Night was immortalized when Shakespeare wrote a play by that title to commemorate the celebrations. One modern aspect of this final day is that it marks a definite time to take down the christmas decorations.
So there you have it, the real story behind what you thought was just a song about a generous guy with poor taste in gifts. Here at LSNED, I’ll be celebrating the Christmastide (that’s the official name for this 12 day period) with some special gifts of my own… the 12 Facts of Christmas. You can look forward to finding some knowledge in your stocking this year.
- Source: Twelve Days of Christmas on Wikipedia