Published: 18-03-2010, 08:37

Twelve Days of Christmas

The Twelve Days of Christmas fall between December 25 and January 6, that is, between Christmas and Epiphany. Church customs, as well as some folk traditions reckon the twelve-day period as beginning on Christmas and ending on the day before Epiphany. Other traditions recognize the day after Christmas as the first of the Twelve Days and Epiphany as the last. In past centuries Europeans experienced the Twelve Days as both a festive and fearful time of year.


By the fourth century most western European Christians celebrated Epiphany on January 6. In the same century Western Church officials declared December 25 to be the Feast of the Nativity. In establishing these dates for the two festivals, the Church bracketed a twelve-day period during which a number of non-Christian celebrations were already taking place. For example, the Roman new year festival of Kalends as well as the Mirthraic festival commemorating the Birth of the Invincible Sun occurred during this period. What’s more, the raucous Roman holiday of SATURNALIA was just drawing to a close as this period began. Further to the north some researchers speculate that the Teutonic peoples may have been observing a midwinter fes-tival called Yule at about this time of year. The establishment of Christmas and Epiphany during this cold, dark season provided further occasions for midwinter celebrations. In 567 the Council of Tours declared the days that fall between Christmas and Epiphany to be a festal tide. This decision expanded Christmas into a Church season stretching from December 25 to January 5. In English this period is known as Christmastide.
Early Church authorities condemned the riotous festivities that characterized the pagan holidays celebrated during this period, especially Kalends, which fell on January 1. Eventually they declared January 1 to be a Christian holiday the Feast of the Circumcision.
They urged their followers to observe this and the other Christian festivals that took place at this time of year with a joyful sobriety rather than drunken gaming, masking, dancing, and revelry.
As Christianity became more firmly rooted in Europe, political leaders declared the Twelve Days to be legal holidays. Near the end of the ninth century King Alfred the Great of England (849-899) mandated that his subjects observe the Twelve Days of Christmas, outlawing all legal proceedings, work, and fighting during that time. The Norwegian King Haakon the Good (d. c. 961) established the Christian observance of the festival in Norway in the middle of the tenth century.


In late medieval England, manor house records indicate that the gentry indeed exempted the peasants who worked their lands from labor during these days. Of course the weather also cooperated, late December presenting the farmer with little to do in the fields or barns. Custom also dictated that the lord provide a feast for all those working on his lands. In exchange, the workers, or villeins, were expected to bring gifts of farm produce to the manor house.
The well-to-do enjoyed a variety of diversions during the Twelve Days, including feasting, storytelling, hunting, playing and listening to music, and watching and participating in dances and tournaments. King Richard II of England (1367-1400) organized a Christmas tournament that drew knights from all over Europe. The jousting matches lasted nearly two weeks and were followed each evening by feasting and dancing. The late medieval tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, set in England during the Christmas season, offers a marvelous description of how the well-to-do entertained themselves during these festival days.
By the end of the Middle Ages both jousting and the manorial feast for those who worked on large estates disappeared as ways of celebrating the Twelve Days. Although some landowners continued to entertain the poor at this time of year, most preferred to feast with family and friends. Records from the time of the Renaissance indicate that the English continued to enjoy feasting, dancing, music-making, and performances of various kinds during the Twelve Days (see also Christmas Carol; Lord of Misrule; Nativity play). Play-going was another popular holiday diversion around the time of the Renaissance. Lastly, the courtly masque evolved out of the mumming and disguising practices already common at this time of year during this era.
The idea that the wealthy should make some special provision for the poor during the Twelve Days of Christmas lingered throughout the following centuries. As late as the nineteenth century some English farm laborers felt entitled to claim Christmas hospitality from the local landlord. The customs associated with Boxing Day also reflected the notion that the well-to-do should give generously around Christmas time. This noble ideal inspired the American writer Washington Irving (1783-1859) to write a story about an English squire who tried to maintain old-fashioned Christmas hospitality by keeping an open house during the Twelve Days. Irving’s work influenced the English writer Charles Dickens (1812-1870). Dickens’s famous work A Christmas Carol tells the story of a rich and greedy old man who learns compassion and charity one Christmas Eve.
Wealthy colonial Americans who celebrated Christmas observed the Twelve Days as a period of festivity, relaxation, and romance. Many parties took place during the twelve days. Young, single people found these occasions ideal for light-hearted flirting or serious scouting for a possible mate. Many weddings also took place during this period.


A variety of holidays punctuate the Twelve Days of Christmas. The customs, stories, and festivities associated with these observances add additional color to the celebration of the Twelve Days. These holidays include St. Stephen’s Day on December 26, which later became Boxing Day in England, St. John’s Day on December 27, Holy Innocents’ Day on December 28, New Year’s Day and the Feast of the Circumcision on January 1, and Twelfth Night on January 5 or 6. These celebrations, along with the festivities associated with the Twelve Days themselves, declined as European societies be-came increasingly industrialized.