Twelve Days of Christmas

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This article is about the religious period. For the Christmas song, see The Twelve Days of Christmas (song). For the Ross O'Carroll-Kelly album, see The Twelve Days of Christmas (album).
12 Days of Christmas
Adoration assisi.jpg
Observed by Christians
Type Christian
Observances varies by church, culture, country
Date 25 December–5/6 January
Frequency annual
Related to Christmas Day, Twelfth Night, Epiphany

The Twelve Days of Christmas is the festive Christian season, beginning on Christmas Day (25 December), that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, as the Son of God. This period is also known as Christmastide. This is different from the Octave of Christmas, which is the liturgical time from Christmas Day until the Solemnity of Mary on 1 January. The Twelfth Day of Christmas falls on 5 or 6 January depending which tradition is followed.[1] There is similar confusion about the date of Twelfth Night which is commonly held to be 5 January but some hold that it is 6 January. The Feast of the Epiphany is on 6 January which celebrates the visit of the Wise Men (Magi) and their bringing of gifts to the child Jesus. In some traditions, the feast of Epiphany and Twelfth Day overlap.[2]

Many different saint feast days fall within the twelve days of Christmas, but they are not part of the Twelve Days themselves. The Twelve Days is a distinct period focused on commemorating the Nativity of Christ. Different traditions follow slightly different days and traditions. St. Stephen's Day, for example, is 26 December in the Western Church and 27 December in the Eastern Church. 28 December is Childermas/Feast of the Holy Innocents. In Britain and the former colonies, 26 December is also known as Boxing Day, a secular holiday. Currently, the twelve days and nights are celebrated in varying ways around the world. Some give gifts only on Christmas Day, some only on Twelfth Night, and some each of the twelve nights. In many Latin American countries, the Feast of the Epiphany is accorded a great celebration.

Eastern Christianity[edit]

In Eastern Christianity (the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches), the Great Feast of Theophany (Epiphany) on 6 January is considered a higher-ranked feast than the Nativity (Christmas)[citation needed], and commemorates the Baptism of Jesus rather than the arrival of the Magi. The twelve days beginning on 25 December are observed as a fast-free period of celebration. Those who celebrate Christmas using the Julian Calendar, such as the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Armenian Catholic Church, observe the Nativity of Christ on 6 January, so they have their twelve-day period between Christmas and 19 January.

Orthodox churches[edit]

Icon of the Nativity of Christ.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, The Great Feast of the Nativity of our Lord begins on the Eve of 25 December (for those Orthodox churches which follow the Julian calendar, 25 December falls on 7 January of the modern Gregorian Calendar).

The Twelve Days of Christmas are a festive period linking together two Great Feasts of the Lord: Nativity and Theophany. During this period one celebration leads into another. The Nativity of Christ is a three-day celebration: the formal title of the first day is "The Nativity According to the Flesh of our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ", and celebrates not only the Nativity of Jesus, but also the Adoration of the Shepherds of Bethlehem and the arrival of the Maji; the second day is referred to as the "Synaxis of the Theotokos", and commemorates the role of the Virgin Mary in the Incarnation; the third day is known as the "Third Day of the Nativity", and is also the feast day of the Protodeacon and Protomartyr Saint Stephen.

29 December is the Orthodox Feast of the Holy Innocents.

The Afterfeast of the Nativity (similar to the Western octave) continues until 31 December (that day is known as the Apodosis or "leave-taking" of the Nativity).

The Saturday following the Nativity is commemorated by special readings from the Epistle (1 Tim 6:11-16) and Gospel (Matt 12:15-21) during the Divine Liturgy. The Sunday after Nativity has its own liturgical commemoration in honour of "The Righteous Ones: Joseph the Betrothed, David the King and James the Brother of the Lord".

Russian icon of the Theophany.

1 January, at the center of the festal period, is known in the Western Church as the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God and as another feast of the Lord (though not ranked as a Great Feast): the Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord. On this same day is the feast day of Saint Basil the Great, and so the service celebrated on that day is the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil.

2 January begins the Forefeast of the Theophany.

The Eve of the Theophany (5 January) is a day of strict fasting, on which the devout will not eat anything until the first star is seen at night. This day is known as Paramony ("preparation"), and follows the same general outline as Christmas Eve. That morning is the celebration of the Royal Hours and then the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil combined with Vespers, at the conclusion of which is celebrated the Great Blessing of Waters, in commemoration of the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. There are certain parallels between the hymns chanted on Paramony and those of Good Friday, to show that, according to Orthodox theology, the steps that Jesus took into the Jordan River were the first steps on the way to the Cross. That night the All-Night Vigil is served for the Feast of the Theophany.

Western Christianity[edit]

The first day of Christmas is Christmas Day and each day is a feast in memory of a Saint or event associated with the Christmas season. The days are as follows:

Day 1: 25 December: Christmas Day, formally called the Solemnity (high holy feast day) of the Nativity of the Lord.
Day 2: 26 December: St. Stephen, the first deacon and first martyr. His martyrdom account can be found in the Bible, in the book the Acts of the Apostles. This day is mentioned in the carol "Good King Wenceslas". In the United Kingdom, Boxing Day, a non-religious bank holiday, occurs on the first day following Christmas (movable when falling at weekends —- see main article). In Ireland this day is also known as Wren Day.
Day 3: 27 December: St. John the Evangelist and Apostle.
Day 4: 28 December: Feast of the Holy Innocents, the young male children ordered murdered in Bethlehem by King Herod, according to the Gospel of Matthew. The traditional Christmas song "The Coventry Carol" describes this event.
Day 5: 29 December: St. Thomas Becket.
Sunday after Christmas Day: Feast of the Holy Family of St. Joseph, St. Mary and Jesus.
Day 6: 30 December St Egwin of Worcester.
Day 7: 31 December: Pope St. Sylvester. In Scotland this day is known as Hogmanay. In Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Slovakia, Switzerland and Slovenia, New Years Eve is still referred to as Silvester.
Day 8: 1 January: The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Before the Second Vatican Council it was also observed as the Circumcision of the Lord.
Day 9: 2 January: St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen. In England, the Lichfield Martyrs are also celebrated on this day.
Day 10: 3 January: Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus.
Day 11: 4 January: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American saint. In medieval times this was The feast of Saint Simon Stylites.
Day 12: 5 January: St. John Neumann. In the UK this was the Feast of St. Edward the Confessor, King of England. The rest of Europe celebrated St. Julian the Hospitaller on this day. The evening of the 5 January is also Twelfth Night.

In the United States, the Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord is celebrated on the second Sunday after Christmas Day. On the third Sunday after Christmas Day, the Church celebrates the Baptism of the Lord.

Middle Ages[edit]

Twelfth Night (The King Drinks) by David Teniers c. 1634-1640

In England in the Middle Ages, this period was one of continuous feasting and merrymaking, which climaxed on Twelfth Night, the traditional end of the Christmas season. In Tudor England, Twelfth Night itself was forever solidified in popular culture when William Shakespeare used it as the setting for one of his most famous stage plays, titled Twelfth Night. Often a Lord of Misrule was chosen to lead the Christmas revels.[3]

Some of these traditions were adapted from the older pagan customs, including the Roman Saturnalia and the Germanic Yuletide.[4] Some also have an echo in modern day pantomime where traditionally authority is mocked and the principal male lead is played by a woman, while the leading older female character, or 'Dame', is played by a man.

Colonial America[edit]

The early North American colonists brought their version of the Twelve Days over from England, and adapted them to their new country, adding their own variations over the years. For example, the modern-day Christmas wreath may have originated with these colonials.[5][6] A homemade wreath would be fashioned from local greenery and fruits, if available, were added. Making the wreaths was one of the traditions of Christmas Eve; they would remain hung on each home's front door beginning on Christmas Night (1st night of Christmas) through Twelfth Night or Epiphany morning. As was already the tradition in their native England, all decorations would be taken down by Epiphany morning and the remainder of the edibles would be consumed. A special cake, the king cake, was also baked then for Epiphany.

Modern Western customs[edit]

United Kingdom and Commonwealth[edit]

Many in the UK and other Commonwealth nations still celebrate some aspects of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Boxing Day (26 December) is a national holiday in many Commonwealth nations, being the first full day of Christmas. Victorian era stories by Charles Dickens (and others), particularly A Christmas Carol, hold key elements of the celebrations such as the consumption of plum pudding, roasted goose and wassail. These foods are consumed more at the beginning of the Twelve Days in the UK.

Twelfth Night is the last day for decorations to be taken down, and it is held to be bad luck to leave decorations up after this. This is in contrast to the custom in Elizabethan England, when decorations were left up until Candlemas; this is still done in some other Western European countries such as Germany.

United States[edit]

Twelfth Night costumers in New Orleans

The traditions of the Twelve Days of Christmas have been largely forgotten in the United States. Contributing factors include the popularity of stories by Charles Dickens in nineteenth-century America (with their emphasis on generous gift-giving), introduction of more secular traditions over the past two centuries (such as the American Santa Claus), and the rise in popularity of New Year's Eve parties. The first day of Christmas actually terminates the Christmas marketing season for merchants, as shown by the number of "after-Christmas sales" that launch on 26 December. The commercial calendar has encouraged an erroneous assumption that the Twelve Days end on Christmas Day and must therefore begin on 14 December.[7][8]

Many Christians still celebrate the liturgical seasons of Advent and Christmas according to their traditions. Represented well among these are Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Episcopalians, Anglo-Catholics, Lutherans, many Presbyterians and Methodists, Moravians, and many individuals in Amish and Mennonite communities.

Celebrants observing the Twelve Days may give gifts on each of them, with each day of the Twelve Days representing a wish for a corresponding month of the new year. They feast and otherwise celebrate the entire time through Epiphany morning. Lighting a candle for each day has become a modern tradition in the U.S. and of course singing the appropriate verses of the famous song each day is also an important and fun part of the American celebrations. Some also light a Yule Log on the first night (Christmas) and let it burn some each of the twelve nights. Some Americans have their own traditional foods to serve each night.

For some, Twelfth Night remains the biggest night for parties and gift-giving. Some households exchange gifts on the first (25 December) and last (5 January) days of the season. As in olden days, Twelfth Night to Epiphany morning is then the traditional time to take down the Christmas tree and decorations.


  1. ^ "The Twelve Days of Christmas". 
  2. ^ "The Customs of Christmastide: The Twelve Days of Christmas". Holy Trinity (German) Catholic Church. 
  3. ^ Frazer, James (1922). The Golden Bough. New York: McMillan. ISBN 1-58734-083-6.
  4. ^ Count, Earl (1997). 4,000 Years of Christmas. Ulysses Press. ISBN 1-56975-087-4. 
  5. ^ New York Times, 27 December 1852: a report of holiday events mentions 'a splendid wreath' as being among the prizes won.
  6. ^ In 1953 a correspondence in the letter pages of The Times discussed whether Christmas wreaths were an alien importation or a version of the native evergreen 'bunch'/'bough'/'garland'/'wassail bush' traditionally displayed in England at Christmas. One correspondent described those she had seen placed on doors in country districts as either a plain bunch, a shape like a torque or open circle, and occasionally a more elaborate shape like a bell or interlaced circles. She felt the use of the words 'Christmas wreath' had 'funereal associations' for English people who would prefer to describe it as a 'garland'. An advertisement in The Times of Friday, 26 December 1862; pg. 1; Issue 24439; col A, however, refers to an entertainment at Crystal Palace featuring 'Extraordinary decorations, wreaths of evergreens ...', and in 1896 the special Christmas edition of The Girl's Own Paper was titled 'Our Christmas Wreath':The Times Saturday, 19 Dec 1896; pg. 4; Issue 35078; col C. There is though a custom of decorating graves at Christmas with somber wreaths of evergreen, which is still observed in parts of England, and this may have militated against the circle being the accepted shape for door decorations until the re-establishment of the tradition from America in the mid-to-late 20th century.
  7. ^ Jami Delgado, ("Consider being non-traditional and celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas on the days leading up to Christmas (14 December-25 December)."
  8. ^ Twelve Days of Christmas (reprint of a magazine article). Retrieved 3 January 2011.