We all know the popular “The 12 Days of Christmas” song. Some of us even know the presents associated with each of the 12 days. But when is the actual 12 days of Christmas? Is this a legitimate event? And if so, do they start on Christmas or end on Christmas? Is there a real history behind this? We have all the answers to these questions and more!
The History Behind the 12 Days of Christmas
The Christmas season typically begins in November with Thanksgiving. A flurry of shopping, planning, baking and party-going culminates on Christmas morning. Santa delivers presents, we celebrate with our families, and on December 26th Christmas is over. However, this is actually not the case! In fact, the 12 Days of Christmas BEGINS on December 25th. Christmas Day is, in fact, day 1 of 12 days of celebration. The 12 Days of Christmas lead up to and end on January 6th with the Epiphany. These 12 Days focus on the true meaning of Christmas and are grounded in Christianity.
What Do the 12 Days Represent?
Well most, if not all, of us know what Christmas Day represents. On December 25th we celebrate the birth of Christ. On this day Jesus was born and our Human nature was united with God. This is certainly a day for celebration. But the days following this are celebrated in Christianity as well. So let’s take a closer look.
- December 26th – St. Stephen’s Day – St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr. This feast day is celebrated by giving leftovers to the poor. Perfectly times for the day after Christmas when leftovers abound.
- December 27th – The Day of John the Apostle – St. John the Evangelist is the only one of the 12 Apostles who did not die as a martyr. Rather, he served as a witness to the Incarnation and wrote about the Christian faith and what he saw.
- December 28th – The Feast of the Holy Innocents – On this day Christians remember the innocent baby boys that were slaughtered by King Herod in his attempt to find and kill the baby Jesus.
- December 29th – The Feast of St. Thomas Becket – St. Thomas was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th He was murdered on December 29th for questioning the King’s authority over the Church.
- December 30th – The Feast of St. Egwin of Worcester – St. Egwin was the bishop of Worcester, England in 692.
- December 31st – While this day is known as New Year’s Eve in the secular world, in Christianity it is also typically celebrated as a day to remember Pope Sylvester I, one of the earliest Popes in the Christian Church.
- January 1st – The Feast of St. Mary – On this day Christians celebrate and remember the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Jesus Christ.
- January 2nd – On this day two saints are celebrated – St. Gregory Nazianzen and St. Basil the Great. These two men were actually friends and served in a monastery together.
- January 3rd – Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus – This day commemorates the day Jesus was officially given His name in the Jewish Temple.
- January 4th – The Feast of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton – St. Elizabeth was the first American saint.
- January 5th – The Feast of St. John Neumann – This was the first Bishop in America.
- January 6th – The Epiphany – This is the culmination of the 12 Days of Christmas. This day celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. is marked by the coming of the Magi to visit Jesus, the Baptism of Jesus and the turning of water into wine. In Eastern Christian Churches, the Baptism of Jesus is the main focus on this Holy Day.
So there is actually a deep religious foundation behind the 12 Days of Christmas. It is meant to be a time for Christians to focus on their faith.
What About the 12 Days of Christmas Song?
So is there a connection between the religious meaning of the 12 Days of Christmas and the famous Christmas carol? The answer is maybe. While it is not proven, there is a belief that the Christmas carol developed during a period when Catholicism was outlawed in England. The song developed as a way for Catholics to sing about their faith via secret code. The verses of the song symbolized various parts of Catholicism:
- A Partridge in a Pear Tree – Jesus Christ
- Two Turtle Doves – The Old and New Testaments
- Three French Hens – The three virtues of faith, hope and charity
- Four Calling Birds – The four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
- Five Golden Rings – The first five books of the Old Testament
- Six Geese-a-Laying – The six days God created Earth
- Seven Swans-a-Swimming – The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit
- Eight Maids-a-Milking – The eight Beatitudes
- Nine Ladies Dancing – The nine fruits of the Holy Spirit
- Ten Lords-a-Leaping – The ten Commandments
- Eleven Pipers Piping – The eleven faithful Disciples
- Twelve Drummer Drumming – The twelve points of belief in the Apostle’s Creed
While these religious symbols may be interesting for Christians to be aware of, it certainly does not take away from the secular joy many of us get out of signing this carol each year. But for those who are Christian, this song can now become even more important during the holiday season – bringing both joy and faith to your home.
Putting It All Together
So while it is most common to celebrate Christmas on December 25th and go back to reality on the 26th, some people choose to celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas by exchanging a small gift on each day. Others view January 6th (the Epiphany) as the more sacred of the two days and have a larger celebration on this day rather than on December 25th. Now that you know more about the history behind the 12 Days of Christmas perhaps you will be inspired to extend your celebration beyond December 25th. It can be a fun way to keep the holiday spirit alive. And it gives new meaning to one of the most beloved Christmas carols. Be sure to educate your children to they are aware of when is the actual 12 Days of Christmas. These 12 days are truly holy and remind us what the holiday is really about. If nothing else, it should be a time where we are reminded to stop and reflect on our faith – even if just for a few moments each day from December 25th through January 6th.