The Real Twelve Days of Christmas

Hands up: who thought that the ’twelve days of Christmas’ referred only to a Christmas song? You know – the one about an over-generous lover showering his paramour with a cummulation of grandiose gifts?  Me too.

Turns out though there’s an underpinning religious significance, both to the gifts given in the song and to the twelve days of Christmas itself. Which, when you think about it, shouldn’t be surprising at all. Well, certainly not in the latter case at any rate.

But before we get to all that let’s first establish what the twelve days of Christmas are:

The Twelve Days of Christmas start with Christmas Day and end with Epiphany on 6th January.  They are NOT the twelve days running up to Christmas Day. Noooooo!

The Real Twelve Days of Christmas

It’s perhaps not surprising that confusion has arisen about what comprises the twelve days of Christmas.

The Christmas season starts earlier and earlier each year with mince pies appearing on the supermarket shelves just after the Crème Eggs.

So, by the time December 25th arrives we’re all Xmased out. Christmas is over, the new year kicks off and we all go back to our daily routines.

But the traditional Christian Christmas celebration is quite the opposite: the Advent season starts on the 4th Sunday before Christmas. For almost a month, Christians wait for the coming of Christ in a period of longing.

THEN, on December 25th, Christmas Day heralds twelve days of celebrations culminating on 6th January with the feast of Epiphany – known also as Twelfth Night.

The ‘real’ twelve days of Christmas matter then. Well at least to the non-secular. Not simply as a way of rejecting the secular notions of the ‘Christmas season’ but also as a commemoration of the moment that God entered the world in the form of a baby.  Something I reckon it does us no harm to remember – even if secular.


Integral to the celebration of the birth of Christ, and the twelve days of Christmas, is a whole lot of feasting.

As Christianity Today explains, three different feasts, dating back to the late fifth century, follow Christmas and reflect the different ways the incarnation mystery took place.

The Feast of Stephen – December 26th. Traditionally a day for giving leftovers to the poor – as in the carol Good King Wenceslas. Stephen was an early deacon and a forerunner of all who show their love of Christ by kindness to the needy. Stephen was also a martyr – the first of the New Covenant.

The Feast of St. John the Evangelist – December 27th

The Feast of the Holy Innocents (the children murdered by Herod) –December 28th.

Finally, come Epiphany, (January 6th) the Christmas celebration comes to an end.  As lovers of Shakespeare will know, Twelfth Night is the ultimate celebration of Christmas madness.

I’m just relieved not to have to do all that feasting. Otherwise the spare tyre would be swiftly pluralised! Not to mention all the washing up. *Shudders*

But back to the song…

Wikipedia describes it as: ‘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 twelve days after Christmas). The song, published in England in 1780 without music as a chant or rhyme, is thought to be French in origin.’

According to the specific origins of the song The Twelve Days of Christmas are not known. It possibly began as a Twelfth Night memory-and-forfeits game in which the 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.

This article goes on to suggest that there’s a likelihood of The Twelve Days of Christmas being either confused or transformed from a song called A New Dial (known also as In Those Twelve Days). Dating back to at least 1625, that song assigns religious meanings to each of the twelve days of Christmas.

There are various versions of these attributions. This is just one:
1 True Love refers to God
2 Turtle Doves refers to the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens refers to Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling (more traditionally ‘Colly’) Birds refers to the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings refers to the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the “Pentateuch”, which gives the history of man’s fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying refers to the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming refers to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking refers to the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing refers to the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping refers to the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping refers to the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming refers to the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed.

So there we have it. An exposé of the meaning behind a jolly Christmas carol. All that remains now is to hear it: so, listeners, I give you The Spinners.

Angela Atkinson


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