What really are the Twelve Days of Christmas?

Everybody knows the song ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’. If you’re reading this in December, chances are you’ve already heard it at least once today. But what is the song based upon? What are the twelve days? What’s their significance, and how were they observed in years gone by?

Here, we’ll attempt to answer your questions, starting with…

When are they?

Traditionally, the ‘twelve days of Christmas’ (or ‘Twelvetide’) are the days between Christmas Day and Epiphany (in Christian tradition, the anniversary of the day when the Magi visited the baby Jesus). Or, in layman’s terms, the days between (and including) the 25th December and the 6th January.

So, they’re not the days leading up to Christmas?

No. Despite what that song implies, the twelve days of Christmas aren’t a run-up to Christmas. They’re more like a run-down from Christmas. The run-up to Christmas is traditionally called ‘Advent’ (hence ‘Advent calendars’). The twelve days more or less correspond to that strange modern period between Christmas and the first bin day after New Year (when the bank holidays are finished with and everything goes back to normal).

Advent is when the fun starts, then? Not on day 1 of 12?

Depends on how Christian you are (and how traditional Christian at that). These days we tend to open the Christmas floodgates on day 1 of Advent, gobbling up our calendar chocolates and launching ourselves into party season with gusto.

In the past, though, Advent was a season of fasting. People would abstain from certain foods (meat, for example) until Christmas. Mind you, these days even the strictest non-orthodox churches don’t have a hard line on fasting during Advent.

In fairness, even in the past it seems that the fasting was more about the practicalities of setting food aside for Christmas feasting and about building anticipation than it was about penitence and privation. So, you can enjoy your chocolate calendar without guilt.

What happens during the Twelve Days, then?

Well, it starts with Boxing Day, which is a bank holiday. Boxing Day has a number of strange traditions attached to it in various parts of the British Isles. In some parts, for example, it’s called ‘Wren Day’ and people used to spend the day catching wrens – apparently for fun. We do not recommend that you do this. In other parts, Boxing Day was a day for walking children around the bounds of their village. Which sounds lovely, but they’d spoil it by stopping at boundary markers to hit the children with sticks (the idea was to reinforce where the edges of their territory were). Again, do not do this. Really, do not.

In general, these days, Boxing Day is a more hungover version of Christmas Day, with less gifting and more picking at leftovers while staring glazedly at the telly.

Other than the Boxing Day traditions, however, there aren’t really many traditions attached to Twelvetide. The idea has always been that the Twelve Days are used to eat, drink, and be merry. Pantomimes have been a Twelvetide tradition for centuries, so book yourself a ticket to a local show. The important thing is that everything is done and dusted by Epiphany, because if there are any Christmas decorations still up, or if anyone is still singing carols by the stroke of midnight on the Thirteenth Day…well, woe betide them! Bad luck will supposedly chase them all year.

What about partridges and pear trees?

The ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ carol is about 250 years old, so you’d think that it would have some kind of grounding in tradition. But you’d think wrong. There are no traditions whatsoever involving partridges in pear trees or lords a-leaping or even five gold rings. It’s just a fun song. It probably started as a party game, with people testing their memory to a tune over the long family evenings of Twelvetide. And it’s since become a popular Christmas song.

I don’t need to buy all the stuff in the song, then, to have a traditional Twelvetide?

Well, you can if you like, but it would cost you millions (and would be pretty unethical besides). We don’t recommend it.

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