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The Twelve Days of Christmas

Updated on December 21, 2016
Chuck profile image

Chuck enjoys celebrating holidays with his family. This has led to an interest in researching & writing about holidays & their traditions.

A Christmas Carol from the Middle Ages

The Twelve Days of Christmas is a popular carol that dates back to the Middle Ages.

Being much older than other popular Christmas carols, this one appears to have evolved rather than being composed and written at one time. In fact the words to this carol were not put to paper until about 1780 when it was published in London along with other popular rhymes in a book called Mirth without Mischief.

Further, while parts of the carol may have been religious in origin, the carol itself and the celebration it describes are a part of the secular celebration of Christmas.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, most major holidays have been religious holy days that have always been observed by a combination of religious worship and secular feasting and celebrating.

Despite the fact that the carol and its imagery are clearly secular, some do associate parts of the carol with religious symbolism and there is even a theory that the carol itself is a mnemonic used by Catholics in England during the 17th and 18th centuries to teach the faith to their children during a period when the Catholic Church was outlawed in England.

Carol Refers to the 12 Days Between Christmas Day and Eiphany

The Twelve Days of Christmas refer to the twelve days between Christmas Day and Epiphany which is the day the Christian Church celebrates the visit of the Magi or Three Kings to see Jesus in the manger in Bethlehem.

The twelve days usually start on Christmas Day and run through January fifth, the eve of Epiphany. However, there are some variations.

In times past people calculated the days as running from sunset to sunset rather than midnight to midnight as we now do. In this case the twelve days started on Christmas Eve. Some others have counted the twelve days beginning with December 26th and running through Epiphany itself.

Like other Christmas customs, the twelve days of Christmas evolved from local customs and holidays that often pre-dated Christianity and Christmas. We can see this even in the present as the way we celebrate Christmas is changing and growing as society changes.

Some customs and traditions become outdated and disappear, while some change with the times and new ones emerge. For instance, modern central heating has eliminated fireplaces making it impossible to burn a log for twelve days, but Yule logs today have evolved into a log-shaped cake to be eaten during the holidays. St. Nicholas has become Santa Claus and has moved from Turkey to the North Pole, and so on.

Like Christmas traditions, the stories and myths surrounding this carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas, have grown and changed and the carol continues to change over time. In the hubs that follow, each of the twelve days will be explained separately.

© 2006 Chuck Nugent


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    • CarolineChicago profile image

      Caroline Paulison Andrew 7 years ago from Chicago, IL

      An amazingly written hub on the the 12 days. Great job. Definitely learned something today. Thank you.

    • dc64 profile image

      dc64 10 years ago

      I am so interested in stuff like this! Great site, and I learned something today I had no idea about. Debra

    • Chuck profile image

      Chuck Nugent 11 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

      Paul, thanks for the link and glad you enjoyed the hub. I believe the Wall Street Journal had a feature article on Jacquie Lawson and her cards a couple of years ago. I can see why her card line is so successful - the card in the link was stunning.

    • Paul Edmondson profile image

      Paul Edmondson 11 years ago from Burlingame, CA

      Interesting, Chuck!  Thanks for the background information.  Here's a cute site about the song:

      Our daughters loved it.  Happy Holidays! Oh... I love the Santa pic, too. ;)