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What Are The Twelve Days of Christmas? The Complete Guide

Are the 12 days of Christmas just a song? Where did the 12 days of Christmas come from? When do the 12 days of Christmas start? Also, was the original meaning of the "12 days of Christmas" a crypto-Catholic children's catechism or is that "urban legend"? Find out below!

Wait! I thought Christmas ended on Christmas

The Christmas Season begins the day after Thanksgiving, right? That's when trees go up and houses are suddenly bedecked with rows of Christmas lights, right? All of this goes away with the garbage bags full of torn wrapping paper ... right?

The traditional Christian celebration of Christmas is exactly the opposite of the secular presentation of Christmas. The season of Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, and for nearly a month Christians await the coming of Christ in a spirit of expectation, singing hymns of longing. Then, on December 25, Christmas Day itself ushers in 12 days of celebration, ending only on January 6 with the feast of the Epiphany. 

The eve of the last day of Christmas is also known as Twelfth Night, but more on that below ...

Also, check out the Catholic Nerds' (my) podcast on the 12 Days of Christmas:

What or Who is celebrated on each of the 12 Days of Christmas?

The 12 Days of Christmas each traditionally celebrate a saint's feast day or another special event:

Day 1 (25th December): Christmas Day, the feast of the Birth of Jesus! Here's one of my favorite images of the Nativity, Adoration of the Shepherds by Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich (1712-1774):

There is such rich theology hidden in this image. The Virgin Mary is the perfect reflection of Christ's light, while St. Joseph is hidden in shadow and yet casting a giant shadow. This speaks to the great hiddenness of St. Joseph.  

Day 2 (26th December aka Boxing Day): The Feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr. This is a traditional day for giving leftovers to the poor, as described in the carol "Good King Wenceslas." 

Do you remember the lines of the Christmas carol? "Good King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen ...  Bring me flesh and bring me wine,  Bring me pine logs hither." "Good" King Wenceslas thus finds a peasant to dine with at Christmas, and the carol ends:

Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing 

Likewise, as one of the first deacons, Saint Stephen was the forerunner of all those who show forth the love of Christ by their generosity to the needy. But more than this, he was the first martyr of the New Covenant, witnessing to Christ by the ultimate gift of his own life. 


Day 3 (27th December): The Feast of St. John the Evangelist. What is unusual is that St. John, as opposed to St. Stephen, is traditionally held to be the only one of the Twelve Apostles who did not die a martyr. Rather, John lived a long life and in some accounts an exceptionally long life. This was perhaps prophesied by Christ himself in the final verses of John's Gospel (21:20-25): “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? 


Day 4 (28th December): The Feast of the Holy Innocents, the children murdered by Herod. According to Christianity Today, in the Holy Innocents, we see the long agony of those who suffer and die through human injustice, never knowing that they have been redeemed. If Christ did not come for them too, then surely Christ came in vain. In celebrating the Holy Innocents, we remember the victims of abortion, of war, of abuse. We renew our faith that the coming of Christ brings hope to the most hopeless. 

First Three Days once celebrated together: In the Middle Ages, these three feasts were each dedicated to a different part of the clergy. Saint Stephen is the patron of deacons, so deacons were celebrated on this day. The feast of John the Evangelist was dedicated to the priests, and the feast of the Holy Innocents was dedicated to young men training for the clergy and serving the altar. 

Day 5 (29th December): The Feast of Saint Thomas à Becket. A strong man who wavered for a moment, but then learned one cannot come to terms with evil, and so became a strong churchman, a martyr, and a saint—that was Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, murdered in his cathedral on December 29, 1170. [Read more on Franciscan Media]

Day 6 (30th December): The Feast of the Holy Family ... sometimes (see below). There is an amazing Litany to the Holy Family. Check it out here. "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, restorers of fallen families, pray for us!" 

You can also fill your Advent with family prayer by consecrating your family to St. Joseph--the 33 days of preparation prayers end on the Feast of the Holy Family! Fr. Donald Calloway and I wrote the book together: Consecration to St. Joseph for Children and Families.  

December 30? In the General Roman Calendar since 1969, the Feast of the Holy Family is held on the Sunday between Christmas Day and January 1. If both are Sundays, the Feast of the Holy Family is celebrated on December 30th.

It's also the Feast of Saint  Egwin of Worcester.  Chances are you aren’t familiar with this Saint, unless you’re especially informed about Benedictine bishops who established monasteries in medieval England. As a bishop he was known as a protector of orphans and the widowed and a fair judge.  [Read more on  Franciscan Media]

Day 7 (31st December): New Year's Eve!  Pope Sylvester I is traditionally celebrated on this day. In many central and eastern European countries New Year's Eve is still sometimes called 'Silvester' after the pope. 

Day 8 (1st January): Feast of the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, a holy day of obligation for Catholics. Solemnities are the highest rank of liturgical celebration, higher than feast days or memorials. By celebrating a solemnity dedicated to Mary’s motherhood, the Church highlights the significance of her part in the life of Jesus, and emphasizes that he is both human and divine.  [Read more on  Busted Halo ]

Not to mention ...

Pope Paul VI, in his apostolic exhortation Marialis Cultus (1974), called the Solemnity of Mary “a fitting occasion for renewing adoration of the newborn Prince of Peace, for listening once more to the glad tidings of the angels (cf.Lk 2:14), and for imploring from God, through the Queen of Peace, the supreme gift of peace.”

Day 9 (2nd January):  Feasts of Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen. Childhood friends described as "two bodies, one spirit," these Cappadocian Fathers, both Doctors of the Church, proved to be some of the most influential Christian teachers of all time, honored by both East and West, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic.  

Here's a great video with Mike Aquilina and Matthew Leonard, "What's so 'Great' about St. Basil?"

Day 10 (3rd January): Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. Although Saint Paul might claim credit for promoting devotion to the Holy Name because Paul wrote in Philippians that God the Father gave Christ Jesus “that name that is above every name” (see 2:9), this devotion became popular because of 12th-century Cistercian monks and nuns but especially through the preaching of Saint Bernardine of Siena, a 15th-century Franciscan.  [Read more at Franciscan Media ]

Day 11 (4th January):  Feast of  St. Elizabeth Ann Seton ,  the first native born American to be canonized by the Catholic Church . It is also celebrated as the feast of Saint Simon Stylites,  who lived on a small platform on the top of a pillar for 37 years!

Day 12 (5th January also known as Epiphany Eve):  Feast of St. John Neumann . He was the first member of the  Redemptorists   to profess vows in the United States and became  the first American bishop to be beatified.  He served for several years in Pittsburgh with fellow denizen of Heaven, Blessed Selos, who you can read more about here.

What is Twelfth Night?

January 6th is the Feast of the Epiphany. The celebration of Christmas comes to an end the night before the Epiphany with the "Twelfth Night". 

"The 12th Night," as all lovers of Shakespeare know, is the ultimate celebration of Christmas madness. Epiphany commemorates the beginning of the proclamation of the gospel—Christ's manifestation to the nations, as shown in three different events: the visit of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus, and the turning of water into wine. In the Western tradition, the Magi predominate. But in the Eastern churches, Jesus' baptism tends to be the primary theme.

But that's not all ...

In the Bucharest subway, children leading lambs walk through the trains in commemoration of the Lamb of God to whom John pointed. Orthodox Christians traditionally have their homes blessed with holy water on or around this day. Nowhere is Epiphany celebrated more joyously than in Ethiopia. Pilgrims from all over the country converge on the ancient city of Aksum, where they bathe in a great reservoir whose waters have been blessed by a priest.

What about the "12 Days of Christmas" Urban Legend? The Secret Catechism Behind the Song is a Fabrication

Have you heard the urban legend about the "12 Days of Christmas"? Is it true? Was the original meaning of the "12 days of Christmas" a crypto-Catholic children's catechism used in anti-Catholic Anglican in Tudor England?

Here's the short of it: It's likely that each of the 12 days of Christmas are symbolic. But a secret catechism? Unlikely.   

You may have received an email that ran something like this:
You’re all familiar with the Christmas song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” I think. To most it’s a delightful nonsense rhyme set to music. But it had a quite serious purpose when it was written. It is a good deal more than just a repetitious melody with pretty phrases and a list of strange gifts.

Catholics in England during the period 1558 to 1829, when Parliament finally emancipated Catholics in England, were prohibited from ANY practice of their faith by law – private OR public. It was a crime to BE a Catholic.

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” was written in England as one of the “catechism songs” to help young Catholics learn the tenets of their faith – a memory aid, when to be caught with anything in writing  indicating adherence to the Catholic faith could not only get you imprisoned, it could get you hanged, or shortened by a head – or hanged, drawn and quartered, a rather peculiar and ghastly punishment I’m not aware was ever practiced anywhere else. Hanging, drawing and quartering involved hanging a person by the neck until they had almost, but not quite, suffocated to death; then the party was taken down from the gallows, and disembowelled while still alive; and while the entrails were still lying on the street, where the executioners stomped all over them, the victim was tied to four large farm horses, and literally torn into five parts – one to each limb and the remaining torso.

The songs gifts are hidden meanings to the teachings of the faith. The “true love” mentioned in the song doesn’t refer to an earthly suitor, it refers to God Himself. The “me” who receives the presents refers to every baptized person. The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge which feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings, much in memory of the expression of Christ’s sadness over the fate of Jerusalem: “Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered thee under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but thou wouldst not have it so…”

The other symbols mean the following: 
2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the “Pentateuch”, which gives the history of man’s fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed

So, is it true?

It is true that Catholics suffered severe persecution and scores of martyrdoms in England from the time of St. Thomas More onward. However, there are some significant issues with the idea, itself. 

Here's the first problem ...

Why would young Catholics need to study these elements of the Catholic Faith in secret? The Church of England (Anglican Church) made some pretty major breaks with Catholic teaching, including a rejection of the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the authority of the Pope. But the memory-aid above describes facts that both churches would believe

The number of Apostles, etc. wouldn't need to be studied in secret.

Here's another problem ... 

This is a pretty bad memory device. There's no intrinsic connection between what's being connected. Children wouldn't be memorizing anything of substance. It's just numbers! Does anybody really need to memorize how many books are in the first five books of the Bible? Or, for that matter, who's buried in Grant's tomb? A mnemonic to help me remember the names and order of the first five books would be helpful, not that there are five.

A memory device for catechizing children the "12 Days of Christmas" probably is not; however, that doesn't mean the song wasn't infused with symbolic Christmas meaning. That's about all we can say from the historical sources. 

What is the "Twelfth Night"? Not Just a Shakespearean Play

Here's a little extra on Twelfth Night, specifically, from Why Christmas:

Twelfth Night was a big time of celebration with people holding large parties. During these parties, often the roles in society were reversed with the servants being served by the rich people. This dated back to medieval and Tudor times when Twelfth Night marked the end of 'winter' which had started on 31st October with All Hallows Eve (Halloween).

At the start of Twelfth Night the Twelfth Night cake was eaten. This was a rich cake made with eggs and butter, fruit, nuts and spices. The modern Italian Panettone is the cake we currently have that's most like the old Twelfth Night cake.

A dried pea or bean was cooked in the cake. Whoever found it was the Lord (or Lady) of Misrule for night. The Lord of Misrule led the celebrations and was dressed like a King (or Queen). This tradition goes back to the Roman celebrations of Saturnalia. In later times, from about the Georgian period onwards, to make the Twelfth Night 'gentile', two tokens were put in the cake (one for a man and one for a women) and whoever found them became the the 'King' and 'Queen' of the Twelfth Night party.

In English Cathedrals, during the middle ages, there was the custom of the 'Boy Bishop' where a boy from the Cathedral or monastery school was elected as a Bishop on 6th December (St Nicholas's Day) and had the authority of a Bishop (except to perform Mass) until 28th December. King Henry VIII banned the practice in 1542 although it came back briefly under Mary I in 1552 but Elizabeth I finally stopped it during her reign.

During Twelfth Night it was traditional for different types of pipes to be played, especially bagpipes. Lots of games were played including ones with eggs. These included tossing an egg between two people moving further apart during each throw - drop it and you lose; and passing an egg around on spoons. Another popular game was 'snapdragon' where you picked raisins or other dried fruit out of a tray of flaming brandy!

The first Monday after the Christmas feast has finished was known as ‘Plough Monday’ as this was when farming work would all begin again!

In many parts of the UK, people also went Wassailing on Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night is also known as Epiphany Eve. In many countries it's traditional to put the figures of the Wise Men/Three Kings into the Nativity Scene on Epiphany Eve ready to celebrate Epiphany on the 6th January.

It's also traditional to take your Christmas decorations down following Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night is also the name of a famous play written by William Shakespeare. It's thought it was written in 1601/1602 and was first performed at Candlemas in 1602, although it wasn't published until 1623.

Any questions? Comments? Let me know below and I'll address all I can or point you in the right direction. 

Pace e Bene (Italian for peace and goodness - thanks, Father Karl!)

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