The Twelve Days of Christmas isn’t just a song; it was a celebration of Jesus’s birth beginning on Christmas Day. This was the Day 1 or the first day of Christmas.
A saint was honored on each successive day. For instance, December 26th was Day 2. This is Boxing Day. St. Stephen was the one remembered on this day.
The Twelfth Night—or Epiphany Eve—is January 5th, the evening before the Twelfth Day when people celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany. January 6th is the final day of Christmas.
Folks hosted big parties on the Twelfth Night. They played music–usually bagpipes–and played games. Hostesses served Twelfth Night cake every year. It was a fun and festive event.
Our beloved song, Twelve Days of Christmas, seems to have begun as a “memories—and—forfeits” game, as is printed in a children’s book in 1780, Mirth Without Mischief. The leader began the game by quoting a verse that the followers repeated. This continued until a player made a mistake, when that person paid a small forfeit or penalty—possibly a kiss.
This was one of the games played at Twelfth Night parties. When this and other games finished, guests sat down to enjoy a meal that included mince pies and Twelfth Night cake.
The Christmas season ended on January 6th, known as Epiphany. This day honors two events in Jesus’s life: the first event happened when the Magi traveled from the east to bring gifts to the newborn king, Jesus; and the second event took place when John the Baptist baptized Jesus.
Citizens of different countries celebrate Epiphany in various ways. For example, the children of Spain leave straw or grain for the horses of the three kings inside their shoes on Epiphany Eve, January 5th. They are delighted to find cookies or gifts has replaced the grain on Epiphany.
The three kings ride into many cities in Spain on Epiphany Eve. Drummers dressed in medieval costumes and military bands enter with the kings as part of the event.
Traditionally, the Twelve Days of Christmas has been much more than a fun song. Learning the history adds meaning to what we already love about the season.
-Sandra Merville Hart
“Epiphany,” Timeanddate.com, 2016/10/25 https://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/common/epiphany.
“The Twelve Days of Christmas,” WhyChristmas.com, 2016/10/25 http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/12daysofchristmas.shtml.
“The Twelve Days of Christmas (Song,)” Wikipedia, 2016/10/25 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Twelve_Days_of_Christmas_(song).