12 Days of Christmas History
The Twelve Days of Christmas is a rather misunderstood part of the church calendar for Christians who are not familiar with church traditions. If asked many would say the twelve days are the twelve days before Christmas, but in most of the Western Church the twelve days are from Christmas until the beginning of Epiphany (January 6th; the 12 days counting from December 25th until January 5th). Some traditions have the first day of Christmas beginning on the evening of December 25th.
Epiphany is celebrated as the time the three Wise Men or Magi arrived to present gifts to the infant Jesus. In Hispanic and Latin American cultures, January 6th is observed as Three Kings Day. In these cultures, January 6th is often the day for giving gifts. Other places may have the tradition of giving a Christmas gift for each of the Twelve Days of Christmas. The Eastern Orthodox church uses a different religious calendar so they celebrate Christmas on January 7th and observe Epiphany on January 19th. As you can see time, place and culture play a large part in the interpretation of the Twelve Days.
European and Scandinavian cultures had combined the Twelve Days of Christmas with festivals celebrating the changing of the year. These were usually associated with driving away evil spirits for the start of the new year. December 26 is the feast of St. Stephen-a traditional day for giving leftovers to the poor (as described in the carol 'Good King Wenceslas' and is based the Duke of Bohemia in the 10th century known for his generosity to the poor.)
The Twelfth Night in England is January 5th, the last day of the Christmas Season before the beginning of Epiphany (January 6th). Twelfth Night often included feasting along with the removal of Christmas decorations. Shakespeare's play 'Twelfth Night' is probably better known to the world than the Christian traditions surrounding it.
The popular song 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' is usually seen as a carol for children but it is also thought to be a song of Christian instruction dating from 16th century England. I won't get in to the arguments on both sides of that idea but it makes for interesting reading if you google 'Twelve days of Christmas history'. For my part I find I like the idea of the song having a Christian meaning under its lyrics. I grew up learning it as a rather whimsical song with to my young mind fanciful images that drummed with the drummers and swam with the swans. As an adult I like thinking of the Christian symbols associated with each verse.
So as you have the tune humming around in your head do reflect upon the various meanings of the song and of the season that it heralds. A little of 'Good King Wenceslas'
is in all of us and now's the perfect time to share it.
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