Discover the origins and significance of the 12 Days of Christmas, a time of festive celebration starting on Christmas Day and culminating with Twelfth Night. Learn about the feast days of saints, customs, and games associated with each day.
“The 12 Days of Christmas” is a traditional celebration that begins on Christmas Day and continues until the evening of January 5th, known as Twelfth Night. It originated in Europe before the Middle Ages and was established to reconcile the different dates on which the Western and Eastern Christian churches celebrated Christmas. Each of the 12 days is associated with a specific feast day for a saint and involves various customs and celebrations.
The summary of the 12 Days of Christmas and associated feast days is as follows:
- Christmas Day (December 25th): Celebrates the birth of Jesus.
- St. Stephen’s Day/Boxing Day (December 26th): Commemorates St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. It is also associated with the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas.”
- St. John the Apostle’s Day (December 27th): Honors St. John, one of Jesus’ disciples and close friends.
- Feast of the Holy Innocents (December 28th): Remembers the baby boys killed by King Herod in his search for the Baby Jesus.
- St. Thomas Becket’s Day (December 29th): Commemorates St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th century, who was murdered for challenging the King’s authority over the Church.
- St. Egwin of Worcester’s Day (December 30th): Honors St. Egwin, a bishop from Worcester.
- New Year’s Eve (December 31st): Celebrated as the end of the year, known as “Hogmanay” in Scotland. It is also associated with Pope Sylvester I and various traditional games and sporting competitions.
- New Year’s Day/Mary, the Mother of Jesus (January 1st): Honors Mary, the mother of Jesus, and marks the beginning of the new year.
- St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen’s Day (January 2nd): Honors two important 4th-century Christians.
- Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus (January 3rd): Commemorates the official naming of Jesus in the Jewish Temple.
- St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s Day (January 4th): Honors St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American saint who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries.
- Epiphany Eve (January 5th): Celebrates St. John Neumann, the first Bishop in America to become a saint, and in some churches, St. Simeon Stylites the Elder. Twelfth Night is also known as Epiphany Eve and is associated with the arrival of the Wise Men/Three Kings in the Nativity scene.
Twelfth Night itself is a festive time with large parties, where social roles are often reversed. It marks the end of the winter season and was traditionally celebrated with a special cake, known as the Twelfth Night cake. A dried pea or bean would be baked into the cake, and the person who found it became the Lord or Lady of Misrule for the night, leading the celebrations. Later, tokens representing a man and a woman were added to the cake, and the individuals who found them became the King and Queen of the Twelfth Night party.
During Twelfth Night, various games and activities were enjoyed, including playing different types of pipes, such as bagpipes, and engaging in egg-related games. ‘Snapdragon’ was a popular game that involved picking raisins or dried fruit out of a tray of flaming brandy. The first Monday after the Christmas feast was known as “Plough Monday,” signaling the resumption of farming work.
In many parts of the UK, people also participated in Wassailing on Twelfth Night, a tradition where people would go from house to house, singing carols and offering good wishes for the new year. This custom was particularly associated with blessing apple trees and ensuring a good harvest.
Twelfth Night is also known as Epiphany Eve, and in many countries, it is customary to place the figures of the Wise Men or Three Kings into the Nativity Scene on this day in preparation for celebrating Epiphany on January 6th.
Following Twelfth Night, it is traditional to take down Christmas decorations. However, during Elizabethan times, it was common to keep greenery and decorations up until Candlemas on February 2nd.
It’s worth noting that “Twelfth Night” is also the title of a famous play written by William Shakespeare. Believed to have been written in 1601/1602, the play was first performed at Candlemas in 1602 and explores themes of mistaken identity and romantic entanglements.
Overall, the 12 Days of Christmas and Twelfth Night were a significant period of celebration and merriment in Europe, featuring feasts, customs, and various festivities that brought joy and marked the transition from Christmas to the new year.