A Month of Christmas: The Twelve Days of Christmas

United States - Scott #1455 (1971)
United States – Scott #1455 (1971)

My religious knowledge is really quite poor and I am really learning a lot while putting together the article for this “Month of Christmas.” I believe most of my “Catholic education” came from came from Biblical epics such as Ben-Hur viewed on television around Christmastime. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that until recently I thought that the “Twelve Days of Christmas” was a countdown to the event itself. Holiday advertising in the United States certainly tries to promote this so I’m probably not alone amongst uninformed Americans. Thus, I have chosen today — twelve days before Christmas Day — to try and set the record straight.

The Twelve Days of Christmas, also known as Twelvetide, is a festive Christian season celebrating the Nativity of Jesus. In most Western ecclesiastical traditions, “Christmas Day” is considered the “First Day of Christmas” and the Twelve Days are December 25 to January 5, inclusive. For many Christian denominations; for example, the Anglican Communion and Lutheran Church, the Twelve Days are identical to Christmastide, but for others, e.g., the Roman Catholic Church, “Christmastide” lasts longer than the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Twelfth Night (The King Drinks) oil on canvas by David Teniers the Younger, circa 1634-1640. Currently in the collection of Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain.

Because the Armenian Apostolic Church and Armenian Catholic Church celebrate the Birth and Baptism of Christ on the same day, they do not have a series of twelve days between a feast of Christmas and a feast of Epiphany. The Oriental Orthodox, other than the Armenians, the Eastern Orthodox, and the Eastern Catholics who follow the same traditions do have the interval of twelve days between the two feasts. If they use the Julian Calendar, they celebrate Christmas on what is for them December 25, but is January 7 of the Gregorian Calendar, and they celebrate Epiphany on what is for them January 6, but is January 19 of the Gregorian Calendar.

For the Eastern Orthodox, both Christmas and Epiphany are among the Twelve Great Feasts that are only second to Easter in importance.

The period between Christmas and Epiphany is fast-free. During this period, one celebration leads into another. The Nativity of Christ is a three-day celebration: the formal title of the first day (i. e. Christmas Eve) is “The Nativity According to the Flesh of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ”, and celebrates not only the Nativity of Jesus, but also the Adoration of the Shepherds of Bethlehem and the arrival of the Magi; the second day is referred to as the “Synaxis of the Theotokos”, and commemorates the role of the Virgin Mary in the Incarnation; the third day is known as the “Third Day of the Nativity”, and is also the feast day of the Protodeacon and Protomartyr Saint Stephen. December 29 is the Orthodox Feast of the Holy Innocents. The Afterfeast of the Nativity (similar to the Western octave) continues until 31 December (that day is known as the Apodosis or “leave-taking” of the Nativity).

Russian icon of the Theophany, or baptism of Jesus.

The Saturday following the Nativity is commemorated by special readings from the Epistle (1 Tim 6:11-16) and Gospel (Matt 12:15-21) during the Divine Liturgy. The Sunday after the Nativity has its own liturgical commemoration in honor of “The Righteous Ones: Joseph the Betrothed, David the King and James the Brother of the Lord”.

Another of the more prominent festivals that are included among the Twelve Great Feasts is that of the Circumcision of Christ on January 1. On this same day is the feast day of Saint Basil the Great, and so the service celebrated on that day is the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil.

On January 2 begins the Forefeast of the Theophany. The Eve of the Theophany on January 5 is a day of strict fasting, on which the devout will not eat anything until the first star is seen at night. This day is known as Paramony (Greek Παραμονή “Eve”), and follows the same general outline as Christmas Eve. That morning is the celebration of the Royal Hours and then the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil combined with Vespers, at the conclusion of which is celebrated the Great Blessing of Waters, in commemoration of the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. There are certain parallels between the hymns chanted on Paramony and those of Good Friday, to show that, according to Orthodox theology, the steps that Jesus took into the Jordan River were the first steps on the way to the Cross. That night the All-Night Vigil is served for the Feast of the Theophany.

Within the Twelve Days of Christmas, there are celebrations both secular and religious.

The Adoration of the Magi. Fresco in the Lower Church of the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi in Assisi, Italy. Painted by Giotto di Bondone in the 1310s.

Christmas Day, if it is considered to be part of the Twelve Days of Christmas and not as the day preceding the Twelve Days, is celebrated by Christians as the liturgical feast of the Nativity of the Lord. It is a public holiday in many nations, including some where the majority of the population is not Christian. On this see the articles on Christmas and Christmas traditions.

December  26 is “St. Stephen’s Day”, a feast day in the Western Church. In Great Britain and its former colonies, it is also the secular holiday of Boxing Day. In some parts of Ireland it is denominated “Wren Day”.

New Year’s Eve on December 31 is the feast of Pope St. Sylvester I and is known also as “Silvester”. The transition that evening to the new year is an occasion for secular festivities in many nations, and in several languages is known as “St. Sylvester Night” (Notte di San Silvestro in Italian, Silvesternacht in German, Réveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre in French, and סילבסטר in Hebrew).

New Year’s Day on January 1 is an occasion for further secular festivities or for rest from the celebrations of the night before. In the Roman Rite of the Roman Catholic Church, it is the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, liturgically celebrated on the Octave Day of Christmas. It has also been celebrated, and still is in some denominations, as the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, because according to Jewish tradition He would have been circumcised on the eighth day after His Birth, inclusively counting the first day and last day. This day, or some day proximate to it, is also celebrated by the Pope and Roman Catholics as World Day of Peace.

In many nations, e. g., the United States, the Solemnity of Epiphany is transferred to the first Sunday after January 1, which can occur as early as January 2. That solemnity, then, together with customary observances associated with it, usually occur within the Twelve Days of Christmas, even if these are considered to end on January 5 rather than January 6.

Orthodox Christmas

Other Roman Catholic liturgical feasts on the General Roman Calendar that occur within the Octave of Christmas and therefore also within the Twelve Days of Christmas are the Feast of St. Stephen, Proto-Martyr on December 26; Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist on December 27; the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28; Memorial of St. Thomas Becket, Bishop and Martyr on December 29; and the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph on the Sunday within the Octave of Christmas or, if there is no such Sunday, on December 30. Outside the Octave, but within the Twelve Days of Christmas, there are the feast of Sts. Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus on January 2 and the Memorial of the Holy Name of Jesus on January 3.

Other saints are celebrated at a local level.

The traditions of the Twelve Days of Christmas have been nearly forgotten in the United States. Contributing factors include the popularity of the stories of Charles Dickens in nineteenth-century America, with their emphasis on generous giving; introduction of secular traditions in the 19th and 20th centuries, e. g., the American Santa Claus; and increase in the popularity of secular New Year’s Eve parties. Presently, the commercial practice treats the Solemnity of Christmas, December 25, the first day of Christmas, as the last day of the “Christmas” marketing season, as the numerous “after-Christmas sales” that commence on December 26 demonstrate. The commercial calendar has encouraged an erroneous assumption that the Twelve Days end on Christmas Day and must therefore begin on December 14.

Many American Christians still celebrate the traditional liturgical seasons of Advent and Christmas, especially Amish, Anglo-Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Mennonites, Methodists, Moravians, Orthodox Christians, Presbyterians, and Roman Catholics. In Anglicanism, the designation of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” is used liturgically in the Episcopal Church in the U.S., having its own invitatory antiphon in the Book of Common Prayer for Matins.

Christians who celebrate the Twelve Days may give gifts on each of them, with each of the Twelve Days representing a wish for a corresponding month of the new year. They may feast on traditional foods and otherwise celebrate the entire time through the morning of the Solemnity of Epiphany. Contemporary traditions include lighting a candle for each day, singing the verse of the corresponding day from the famous The Twelve Days of Christmas, and lighting a yule log on Christmas Eve and letting it burn some more on each of the twelve nights. For some, the Twelfth Night remains the night of the most festive parties and exchanges of gifts. Some households exchange gifts on the first (December 25) and last (January 5) days of the Twelve Days. As in former times, the Twelfth Night to the morning of Epiphany is the traditional time during which Christmas trees and decorations are deposed.

United States – Scott #1445 (1971) first day cover, ArtCraft cachet

Many stamps have been issued marking the Twelve Days of Christmas. Most of these based on the song. Apart from those from the United States and Great Britain (a lovely six-stamp set issued in 1977), many of the Twelve Days stamps seem to be from tiny islands in the Pacific Ocean including Aitutaki, the Cook Islands, Penrhyn, and my personal favorite — a mini-sheet of 12 stamps released by Christmas Island in 1977 (Scott #86). There have been nice stamps on the subject issued by Guernsey and the Isle of Man and Disney versions from places like Lesotho and The Gambia. The Christmas stamp that I remember the most from my childhood (probably before I started my own collection) was the 8-cent “contemporary” stamp issued by the United States Postal Service on November 10, 1971 (Scott #1445). It was designed by Jamie Wyeth — the son of artist Andrew Wyeth — based his painting, “A Partridge in a Pear Tree,” on the  English Christmas carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Wyeth also gained fame by designing the 1981 and 1984 White House Christmas cards and for his moving portrait of John F. Kennedy. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing used the photogravure process to print 979,540,000 copies of the stamp issued in panes of fifty, perforated 10½ x 11.

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is an English Christmas carol that enumerates in the manner of a cumulative song a series of increasingly grand gifts given on each of the twelve days of Christmas. The song, published in England in 1780 without music as a chant or rhyme, is thought to be French in origin. The tunes of collected versions vary. The standard tune now associated with it is derived from a 1909 arrangement of a traditional folk melody by English composer Frederic Austin, who first introduced the familiar prolongation of the verse “five gold rings” (now often “five golden rings”).

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a cumulative song, meaning that each verse is built on top of the previous verses. There are twelve verses, each describing a gift given by “my true love” on one of the twelve days of Christmas. There are many variations in the lyrics. The lyrics given here are from Frederic Austin’s 1909 publication that first established the current form of the carol. The first three verses run, in full, as follows:

On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me
A partridge in a pear tree.
On the second day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Two turtle doves
And a partridge in a pear tree.
On the third day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

Subsequent verses follow the same pattern, each adding one new gift and repeating all the earlier gifts so that each verse is one line longer than its predecessor:

4 calling birds
5 gold rings
6 geese a-laying
7 swans a-swimming
8 maids a-milking
9 ladies dancing
10 lords a-leaping
11 pipers piping
12 drummers drumming

The exact origins and the meaning of the song are unknown, but it is highly probable that it originated from a children’s memory and forfeit game.

The twelve days in the song are the twelve days starting with Christmas Day, or in some traditions, the day after Christmas (December 26, known as Boxing Day or St. Stephen’s Day, as being the feast day of St. Stephen Protomartyr), to the day before Epiphany, or the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6, or the Twelfth Day). Twelfth Night is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the evening of the fifth of January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of the Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking.”

Title page from the first known publication of “The 12 days of Christmas” Mirth without Mischief (1780). London: Printed by J. Davenport, George’s Court

The best known English version was first printed in English in 1780 in a little book intended for children, Mirth without Mischief, as a Twelfth Night “memories-and-forfeits” game, in which a leader recited a verse, each of the players repeated the verse, the leader added another verse, and so on until one of the players made a mistake, with the player who erred having to pay a penalty, such as offering up a kiss or a sweet.

In the northern counties of England, the song was often called the “Ten Days of Christmas”, as there were only ten gifts. It was also known in Somerset, Dorsetshire, and elsewhere in England. The kinds of gifts vary in a number of the versions, some of them becoming alliterative tongue-twisters. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is also widely popular in the United States and Canada. It is mentioned in the section on “Chain Songs” in Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (Indiana University Studies, Vol. 5, 1935), p. 416.

According to The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, “Suggestions have been made that the gifts have significance, as representing the food or sport for each month of the year. Importance [certainly has] long been attached to the Twelve Days, when, for instance, the weather on each day was carefully observed to see what it would be in the corresponding month of the coming year. Nevertheless, whatever the ultimate origin of the chant, it seems probable [that] the lines that survive today both in England and France are merely an irreligious travesty.” It is also worth noting that exactly 364 gifts are given, one for each day of the year besides Christmas.

William S. Baring-Gould suggests that the presents sent on the first seven days were all birds — the “five gold rings” were not actually gold rings, but refer to the five golden rings of the ringed pheasant. Others suggest the gold rings refer to “five goldspinks” — a goldspink being an old name for a goldfinch; or even canaries. However, the 1780 publication includes an illustration that clearly depicts the “five gold rings” as being jewellery.

In 1979, a Canadian hymnologist, Hugh D. McKellar, published an article, “How to Decode the Twelve Days of Christmas” in which he suggested that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” lyrics were intended as a catechism song to help young Catholics learn their faith, at a time when practicing Catholicism was criminalized in England (1558 until 1829). McKellar offered no evidence for his claim. Three years later, in 1982, Fr. Hal Stockert wrote an article (subsequently posted on-line in 1995) in which he suggested a similar possible use of the twelve gifts as part of a catechism.

 In the Faroe Islands, there is a comparable counting Christmas song. The gifts include: one feather, two geese, three sides of meat, four sheep, five cows, six oxen, seven dishes, eight ponies, nine banners, ten barrels, eleven goats, twelve men, thirteen hides, fourteen rounds of cheese and fifteen deer. These were illustrated in 1994 by local cartoonist Óli Petersen on a set of two stamps issued by the Faroese Post Office (Scott #274-275).

Les Douze Mois” (“The Twelve Months”, also known as “La Perdriole” — “The Partridge”) is another similar cumulative verse from France that has been likened to “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. Its final verse, as published in de Coussemaker, Chants Populaires des Flamands de France (1856), runs as follows:

Le douzièm’ jour d’l’année [the twelfth day of the year]
Que me donn’rez vous ma mie? [what will you give me, my love?]
Douze coqs chantants, [twelve singing cockerels]
Onze plats d’argent, [eleven silver dishes]
Dix pigeons blancs, [ten white pigeons]
Neuf bœufs cornus, [nine horned oxen]
Huit vaches mordants, [eight biting cows]
Sept moulins à vent, [seven windmills]
Six chiens courants, [six running dogs]
Cinq lapins courant par terre, [five rabbits running along the ground]
Quat’ canards volant en l’air, [four ducks flying in the air]
Trois rameaux de bois, [three wooden branches]
Deux tourterelles, [two turtle doves]
Un’ perdrix sole, [one lone partridge]
Qui va, qui vient, qui vole, [who goes, who comes, who flies]
Qui vole dans les bois. [who flies in the woods]

According to de Coussemaker, the song was recorded “in the part of [French] Flanders that borders on the Pas de Calais”.

In 2010, illustrator Janice Santikarn published The Twelve Days of Christmas in Thailand, inspired by a version of the song taught by an English teacher at the Bangkok school her children attended. Since coming across this book, unfortunately, I haven’t had the “right” class during the Christmas season to teach the song to. Perhaps next year….

The lyrics for the final verse are as follow:

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me
Twelve kites a-flying
Eleven tuk-tuks beeping
Ten cats meowing
Nine elephants splashing
Eight drums a-beating
Seven orchids blooming
Six juicy mangoes
Five spicy chilies!
four golden temples
Three scary masks
Two Thai dancers
And a monkey in a palm tree

Flag of the United States, 1959-date

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