One of the most popular Christmas songs out there is “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” As part of the Christmas tradition, many sing the song. My son happens to think the song is hilarious.
But why do we have 12 days of Christmas? And where did the song come from?
Why are there 12 Days of Christmas?
One of the common misconceptions about the 12 days of Christmas is that it encompasses the 12 days before Christmas. This is a very common mistake in a town like mine where any sort of liturgical tradition is almost completely unheard of.
Rather than being the 12 days before Christmas, the 12 days refer to the period of time between Christmas and Epiphany which, in the Western liturgical tradition, occurs on January 6th. (Eastern Orthodox Christmas falls on a different date and, consequently, Theophany is also later.)
The exact celebration of the 12 days isn’t exactly nailed down, since some consider Christmas night to be the beginning of the celebration, and part of the First Day of Christmas, which is the 26th. Depending on the tradition followed, sometimes there are gifts given on each of the 12 days of Christmas. Other times, rather than giving gifts on Christmas, some cultures wait until January 6th, Epiphany. Because Epiphany commemorates the gifts of the Magi to Jesus Christ, it seems to some that January 6th is a more appropriate time to give gifts.
Another celebration that takes place during this time period is Twelfth Night. It is the night of January 5th, just before Epiphany. In many European traditions, a King’s Cake is part of the tradition. Twelfth Night is often a time of feasting, and in many cases marks when it is time to take down the Christmas decorations.
For some, the idea of celebrating Christmas for 12 days is appealing. And one can see how the Scandinavians added onto the celebrations (sometimes borrowing from pagan traditions) during the 12 days of Christmas. When it’s cold and dark, it makes sense to liven things up with warmth and light.
How Did We End Up with the Song?
There are lots of different theories about the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Many scholars agree that it was a song designed to help children learn to count — a nonsense song that’s fun for children to sing. However, there have been some stories that insist that the song was a secret code, used by persecuted Catholics in England, to pass on various aspects of the Catechism. That story has mostly been dismissed, but it’s still a popular one, and there have even been meanings ascribed to all of the gifts given over the course of the song.
No matter what you think of the origins of the song, the reality is that it is an indisputable part of our Christmas traditions. And, for the economics geeks out there, a Christmas price index even exists. Every year PNC puts out an index showing how much the 12 gifts in the song costs. And, as you might expect, the price goes up each year.