Many of us enjoy singing “The Twelve Days of Christmas” during the holiday season.  The song brings out the passionate singer in all of us, with its difficult melodies and its memory recall exercises.  But in North America, many of us have forgotten what the twelve days of Christmas really are!  The song is not, as some mistakenly think, a tool for memorizing catechisms or learning the sacraments.  It is literally about the twelve days of the liturgical calendar over which the Christmas holiday used to be celebrated, and still is in some denominations and cultures.

The twelve days do not begin on December 14, but on Christmas Day.  The length of the celebration comes from the number of days between the nativity and the theophany, that is, between Christ’s birth and Christ’s baptism (noted on calandars as “Epiphany”).  For these twelve days and nights, that begin with a feast on Christmas night (only in modern culture has “Christmas Eve” ever been consudered a holiday), and run through the night before Epiphany, Christians would give gifts, eat sweets, sing songs, and enjoy their families.  On the twelfth night, a sort of Mardis Gras atmosphere takes over, complete with gender role reversals, the bucking of authority, and feasting and merrymaking like no other.  This is the night that gave the name to Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night.  The next moring is one of more restrained celebration, a return to church, and the official end of Christmas.  In fact we still retain the idea that we can keep our decorations up until after the first week of January.  That tradition comes from the observation of the Epiphany.

While we may not be able to revive the twelve days of Christmas in American culture, we can at least keep them in mind when we sing the song, buy our gifts, and plan our Christmas celebrations.  Instead of rushing out on December 26th to hit the sales and make returns, perhaps we should all just sit back and bask in what is still a time of holy celebration, a chance to check out of our hectic everyday lives, and think about a simpler time when a partridge in a pear tree would have been quite an exceptional gift.
has a beautiful collection of Twelve Days of Christmas glass ornaments.  Get one for your pear tree!

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