Why are there 12 days of Christmas?

On December 26, when you settle down with this year’s Christmas leftovers, you may be surprised to know that Christmas is not over! In fact, according to age-old tradition, it has just begun.

Until the 19th century, December 25 marked only the beginning of Christmas in many Christian churches.

This was followed by 12 days of Christmas, tying in with the journey of the Magi (the wise men) to see baby Jesus and culminating with the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 (sometimes also called Three Kings’ Day).

For Christians in some parts of the world (particularly those from Orthodox and Catholic backgrounds), January 6 is more important than December 25. Just as the wise men presented gifts to Jesus on this day, many Christians still give their Christmas presents on the Feast of the Epiphany.

The Greek word ‘epiphany’ means ‘an appearance, revelation, or manifestation of a divine being’. In the case of this celebration, the revelation relates to the Magi’s sighting of the divine Christ child.

Sometimes called Twelvetide or even Christmastide, the 12 days of Christmas each commemorate a different saint or sacred celebration in some Christian traditions.

Sometimes called Twelvetide or even Christmastide, the 12 days of Christmas each commemorate a different saint or sacred celebration in some Christian traditions.

Kicking off the 12 days on December 26, Boxing Day is also known as St Stephen’s Day. This was named after the first Christian martyr whose death by stoning is recorded in Acts chapter 7.

At some point in history, in recognition of Stephen’s concern for the poor, this day became a time to give gifts to the needy (called “alms”). The name ‘Boxing Day’ developed from the alms being presented in boxes. This day was also immortalised in the Christmas carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’ when the king “looked out on the feast of Stephen”.

Similarly, the 12 days of Christmas are remembered in popular culture through the cryptic carol of the same name, which was first published in English in a children’s book in 1780. As it turns out, the lyrics of this carol may be quite deliberately ambiguous.

Some historians believe the words were developed by English Catholics who faced persecution during religion wars that developed during the time of Henry VIII. While it can’t be proven, the words may have been a ‘secret code’, used to teach Catholics about the biblical narrative during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The words were later adapted and set to a melody by English composer Frederic Austin in 1909, giving us the popular version we sing today.

As you digest these facts, along with your pud, you may wonder if this historical tour has any relevance for us today.

Obviously, there are benefits in reflecting on and observing such traditions – reminding us about ancient truths, uniting us in shared faith and connecting us with the divine.

Yet even beyond this, it’s valuable to remember that the way we celebrate Christmas is not definitive, and that every expression of delight in the glory of the incarnation of Jesus is equally valid.

Ultimately, just as the Magi discovered, it’s not the journey that’s most important – it’s the destination.

 

A version of this article was originally published in December 2018.