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The Complete History of The 12 Days of Christmas

Updated July 15, 2021
The Complete History of The 12 Days of Christmas

The twelve days of Christmas is a period of celebration, a time to reflect on the lives of the saints, a time to give and receive.

And a time to sing that famous Christmas carol with its secret double meaning.

In pagan times a winter celebration relieved the tedium of dull, cold winter days. And that tradition continues with the twelve days after Christmas. It lasts between Christmas Day and the Eve of Epiphany on January 5th.

Many Christians see this as a time for giving – a gift for every day will bring good luck to the twelve months following.

Every day a saint is commemorated, and often more than one. The festival culminates with the evening of Epiphany when the three kings came to worship the baby Jesus.


Back in the times of the medieval Catholic church, the administrators were finding it difficult to establish dates that agreed between east and west.

The lunar calendars, which had been used by many eastern peoples since ancient times, did not conform to the Julian Solar calendar used in the west. So, in 567, they held one of several “Councils of Tours”.

Tours is centrally located in France and the town has a long history of Christian traditions.

But why are there twelve days of Christmas?

They found it hard to decide which saint days were most important between Christmas and Epiphany.

So, they decided to make all 12 days holy – starting on Christmas day and ending on the 5th of January, immediately before Epiphany. “Holy days” became shortened to “holiday”.

Christmas day is the start of the Afterfeast of the Nativity of Christ. During these holy days Catholics there are no obligations to fast, until the last day January 5th.

Each Day Explained

Each day in the 12 days of Christmas has a meaning, each day is holy.

The 12 days of Christmas gifts is a custom where the giving of gifts on each of the days represents a wish for one of the next year’s months.

Some people light a candle for each day – or light a yule log on Christmas eve and burn a little more each evening.

And maybe one chooses to sing the lyrics from the 12 Days of Christmas.

Day 1 (December 25th)

Day one is Christmas Day – the birth of Jesus Christ and a day of celebration and feasting.

Day 2 (December 26th)

This is Saint Stephen’s feast. St Stephen was the first Christian martyr, a gifted orator, and one of the first Christian deacons.

He didn’t agree with the sacrificial practices in the temples and spoke out against them. And that is why he was stoned to death in 36 AD, in Jerusalem, by Jews.

Also known as Boxing day – a day to recover from the excesses of Christmas day. For many an opportunity for a long walk or some sport.

This was the day when servants had the day off and were given a box of greats – often surplus food or money to take home to their families, or a day when tradesmen were rewarded.

Day 3 (December 27th)

This is the day when we remember St. John, Apostle, and Evangelist. He is the patron saint of love, loyalty, and friendships.

It is John whom we often see in paintings of the crucifixion standing by the cross, lending his strength to Mary.

St John was the only one of the apostles who was not martyred.

Day 4 (December 28th)

On this day we remember the massacre of the infants on the orders of King Herod, in his attempt to kill the baby Jesus. Sometimes it’s called Innocents’ Day, or Childermas.

Although it a designated a feast day it is perhaps also a day for reflections and prayer, the old Christian meaning of a feast.

Day 5 (December 29th)

This was the day in 1170 when Thomas Becket was slain before his altar at Canterbury Cathedral. He and King Henry ll of England had been firm friends until Thomas was elevated to the archbishopric.

They quarreled about the relative powers of throne and church until one day the king uttered these fateful words – “Will no one rid me of this turbulant priest?”.

Four knights heard him and rode post-haste to Canterbury, and killed the priest. The king regretted this for the rest of his life, and Saint Thomas’s tomb became a place of pilgrimage.

Day 6 (December 30th)

There are a plethora of saints on this day including The Holy Virgin Martyr Anysia of Thessalonica. This was a time of persecution of Christians and the Emperor Maximian (286-305) permitted anyone to kill a Christian without fear of punishment.

When a soldier ordered Anysia, who was a strict and pious Christian, to go and offer sacrifice in the Festival of the Sun to the pagan gods, she refused. He ran her through with his sword.

Many people wept for her and a chapel was built over her grave.

Other saints include the martyr Zoticus, Protector of Orphans, and the Holy Apostle Timon – one of the seven deacons who helped poor widows.

Day 7 (December 31st)

On the seventh day of Christmas, Scotland celebrates Hogmanay – to the rest of us, it’s New Year’s Eve. Many people stay up till after midnight to welcome in the new year, with fireworks and alcohol.

There is often a feeling of good-will to all men and friends and strangers link arms to sing “Auld Lang Syne”, a poem written by Scotland’s famous bard – Robert Burns.

Many of us watch the fireworks on television from around the globe as midnight passes over each place, starting with the New Year in Samoa and Christmas Island, in the Pacific Ocean.

Day 8 (January 1st)

New Year’s Day – new resolutions, a new start.

On this day we celebrate the Virgin Mary. Mary was a woman of Nazareth, the wife of Joseph, and the mother of Jesus.

It is also the Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord. This took place in a private house, not the temple as is so often depicted in paintings.

It is also the last day of the Kwanzaa Feast, celebrated mostly in America.

This is part of the African-American celebration of life. Kwanzaa lies between December 26th to January 1st. it was introduced into the USA in 1966 and means “first fruits” in Swahili.

This festival welcomes the first harvests and is a counter to the commercialism of Christmas.

Day 9 (January 2nd)

Saint Genevieve is the patron saint of Paris both for Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions.

She is credited with saving Paris not once but twice.

The first time was from the Huns in 451. She led a prayer marathon, which diverted Attila’s forces.

And again in 464, she saved Paris by acting as an intermediary between King Childeric, who was besieging the city, and the city notables. She collected up food and even persuaded King Childeric to let his prisoners go.

Saint Basil was a bishop in Caesarea (in modern-day Turkey) between 330 – 379 AD.

Saint Basil provided guidelines for the running of the monastery life, supporting manual labor, community spirit, and prayer. He was renowned for his care for the poor and the weak.

Day 10 (January 3rd)

Saint Jane Frances de Chantal (1572-1641) is remembered on the 10th day. She founded an order which accepted women unwanted by other orders – because of age or poor health.

This new order differed from the usual orders for women in that instead of remaining cloistered they reached out to the public.

Day 11 (January 4th)

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774- 1821) was the first native-born American saint. She was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 1975.

She founded the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows. Much of her time was spent with the poor, and later in life, she opened a school for catholic girls in Baltimore.

She founded the Sisters of Charity, which was the first American religious society. The sisters gave free education to the poor girls – perhaps the start of Catholic parochial education in America.

Day 12 (January 5th)

This is the Eve of the Epiphany – a fast day in preparation for the next day’s celebrations.

John of Bohemia was an American Saint, he celebrated on this day – together with many other saints. When he wanted to be ordained in 1835, there were too many priests in Bohemia – so he learned English and came to America.

Here he was at last ordained and traveled widely, visiting the sick and celebrating mass in homes from Pennsylvania to Lake Ontario.

Twelfth Night

On this night the three Kings came to Jesus and his mother Mary, to worship the baby Jesus.

It signals the end of the 12 days of Christmas – a time to clear away the decorations and put out the Christmas tree.

Doing this earlier, often suggests a return to work after the Christmas festivities although this is thought to be unlucky. And leaving them up beyond 12th night means one should keep them up all year!

In some European countries, the decorations stay up till Candlemass on 2nd February.

This was a Catholic holiday – the Eve of the Feast of the Epiphany. In medieval times a time of merriment – men dressing as women – and servants as their masters. It is still an evening to party and exchange gifts.

You might be offered a slice of a traditional Twelfth Night cake. Inside the cake are three beans – and if you find a bean you are crowned one of the three kings.

The kings give gifts to the children and choose which games to play and which songs to sing.

Popular Song

This is an English Christmas carol. And in Tudor England, the twelve days of Christmas lyrics might have had a hidden meaning.

Roman Catholics had to hide their faith from the mid-16th century till 1829. “The 12 days of Christmas” is thought by some people to be a way of remembering tenets of their faith. A sort of 12 days of Christmas catechism.

  • “The first day of Christmas my true love sent to me partridge in a pear tree.” The partridge is a bird who will sacrifice her life to save her young and was thought to represent Jesus.
  • The second day “two turtle doves” represented the old and new testaments.
  • “Three French hens” were for faith, hope, and charity.
  • “Four calling birds” were for the four gospels or the four evangelists – in medieval times the song was “colley” birds – which means blackbirds.
  • “Five Golden rings” represented the first five books of the Old Testament – which tell of man’s fall from grace.
  • “Six Geese a-laying” reminds us of the six days of creation.
  • “Seven Swans A-swimming” are for the seven sacraments or the Holy Spirit’s seven gifts.
  • “Eight Maids A-milking” represented the eight beatitudes.
  • “Nine Ladies Dancing” were equivalent to the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit.
  • “Ten Lords A-leaping” keeps us in mind of the ten commandments.
  • “Eleven Pipers Piping” reminds us that there were eleven faithful apostles.
  • “Twelve Drummers Drumming” are the twelve points in the Apostle’s Creed.

However, a more popular explanation is that this was just a game, often played with forfeits when you forgot what came next in the song.

The earliest version we know of was printed in a children’s book in 1789 called Mirth With-out Mischief. The version we know today was written by Frederic Austin, who added the musical flourish to the five gold rings in 1909.

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