Faith

When Do the 12 Days of Christmas Actually Begin?

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I’m not talking about the famous Christmas song. There are 12 days of Christmas, but they don’t start when many seem to think they do.

Most of us grew up hearing a Christmas carol called “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Many of us actually learned it in kindergarten or grade school. I doubt if they sing a song like that in grade school these days, but that’s beside the point.

Aside from learning how long the song could drone on, we heard of prizes most of us probably wouldn’t want.

If you need a refresher, the song begins, “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me.” It lists the first gift, and then for the second verse, which centers on the second day of Christmas, it lists that day’s gift followed by the first day’s. It continues with the same pattern through all 12 days. At that point, the singers go down the full list of all 12 days’ worth of gifts.

That “true love” must have serious connections, because we’re talking about the kind of gifts even Amazon might not agree to deliver:

  • a partridge in a pear tree
  • two turtle doves
  • three French hens
  • four calling birds
  • five gold (or “golden”) rings
  • six geese a-laying
  • seven swans a-swimming
  • eight maids a-milking
  • nine ladies dancing
  • ten lords a-leaping
  • eleven pipers piping
  • twelve drummers drumming

You always sing the fifth day’s gift at a slower pace, just to further prolong it all.

The original version of the song had somewhat different lyrics. Instead of four “calling” birds, for example, the original featured four “colly” birds. The term comes from the Old English word that meant “black as coal.” It could be where the term Collie, my favorite dog breed, came from.

Good Housekeeping also points out the song originated as a game. In that game, you repeat all the previously-sung lyrics, and add the next one. If you can’t remember a verse, you owe your opponent a “forfeit,” which was usually a kiss or piece of candy.

Well, let’s face it: back then, no one had invented the Simon game, yet.

So when are the 12 Days of Christmas?

The song focuses on the gifts, not the timeframe. We can easily assume that the 12th day is Christmas Day. If that were true, the recipient will receive all 12 sets of gifts by Christmas Day. It makes sense. But if Dec. 25 marked the twelfth day, that would mean the first day would have to be Dec. 13. That way, each day would count up toward Christmas Day.

It doesn’t work that way, however.

WhyChristmas.com tells us that the 12 days actually begin on Christmas Day. The 12 days refer to a Christian festival whose first day celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. Each subsequent day has a specific meaning. The second day of Christmas, Dec. 26, for example, honors St. Stephen, Christianity’s first martyr, the site explains. Click here to read the meaning for each of the 12 days.

With a Christmas Day start, the 12 Days of Christmas run into the new year. That puts Day 12 on Jan. 5.

The twelfth night also held special significance with a variety of celebrations. It also notes that it was tradition to take down Christmas decorations after the twelfth night.

By the time I came along, there was a superstition that you had to take down your Christmas decorations before New Year’s Day or else you’d have bad luck. We never genuinely believed this. But we had the Christmas tree and ornaments packed away every year by Dec. 31, anyway.

However you choose to celebrate Christmas, I hope that day and the 12 days of the season are all pleasant for you and your family.

Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.