Can you imagine the Christmas season without the “ten lords a’ leaping, nine ladies dancing, and eight maids a’ milking”? All singing aside, there actually is a historical basis for the traditional Christmas carol we all know and love. So how did Christians begin celebrating Christmas for 12 days in the first place?
The nearly two-week time period starts and ends with two pretty significant holidays: Christmas on December 25 and the Epiphany on January 6. Christians believe that the 12 days of Christmas mark the amount of time it took after the birth of Jesus for the magi, or wise men, to travel to Bethlehem for the Epiphany when they recognized him as the son of God.
But it wasn’t until three centuries after the birth of Jesus that early church leaders in Rome decided to celebrate his birth on December 25, according to History.com. (The first official mention comes from a Roman calendar in AD 336) Before that, the most important holidays in Christianity were the Epiphany and Easter, which marked Jesus’s resurrection.
The reason they picked December 25? Likely because it coincided with the Roman pagan celebration of the winter solstice and early church leaders were looking for converts. Then, continuing the festivities for 12 days was probably an adaptation of other pre-Christian celebrations that helped the ancient Europeans get through the long winter nights.
“Ancient Christians found a happy coincidence between these festivals that sought the sun’s return and the birth of the ‘Light of the world,'” according to U.S. Catholic. “Pagan festivals became Christian festivals, with many traditions remaining intact. Yule logs and lighted trees, holding off the seemingly endless night, are examples of such adaptations.”
Today, how the 12 days are celebrated by Christians around the world varies. For example, in some churches, the Epiphany (which means “revelation” in Greek) is celebrated as the day the three wise men visited Jesus. In other churches, the Epiphany marks Jesus’s baptism. Here is the history behind 10 other Christmas traditions.
The timing of the 12 days also varies. Eastern Orthodox Churches use a different religious calendar (the Julian calendar as opposed to the Gregorian calendar used by Western churches), so their 12 days of Christmas start on January 7 and runs through the Epiphany on January 19. And while Catholics celebrate the Epiphany as a single day, some Protestant churches celebrate it until Ash Wednesday, leading into the season of Lent and Easter.
Gift-giving customs also differ in some cultures. In Latin America, Christians hand out presents on January 6, which they celebrate as Three Kings Day, instead of December 25. And other cultures give gifts all 12 days. Don’t miss these 15 Christmas traditions from around the world.
The 12 days also honor a different feast or saint, before culminating in Twelfth Night, according to U.S. Catholic. They are:
Day 2 (December 26): St. Stephen’s Day, named for the first Christian martyr who was known for his service to the poor and was stoned to death in AD 36.
Day 3 (December 27): St. John the Apostle, a disciple of Jesus who wrote the Fourth Gospel.
Day 4 (December 28): Feast of the Holy Innocents, which remembers the baby boys that were killed when King Herod was looking for Jesus.
Day 5 (December 29): St. Thomas Becket, the former Archbishop of Canterbury who was killed in the twelfth century for challenging King Henry II’s authority over the church.
Day 7 (December 31): New Year’s Eve. One of the earliest popes, Sylvester I, is honored this day. Legend has it he converted the first Roman emperor Constantine to Christianity.
Day 8 (January 1): The feast day celebrates Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Day 9 (January 2): St. Gregory and St. Basil, two important church leaders during the fourth century, are honored on this day.
Day 12 (January 5): The Eve of the Epiphany.
For centuries, Europeans have held large parties to celebrate Twelfth Night, also known as Epiphany Eve. The day has long been a day of feasting in England, while the French and Spanish make a special “king’s cake” to mark the three wise men’s visit to Jesus. (This is why we kiss under the mistletoe.)
In an interesting twist, some Catholic scholars believe that the “12 Days of Christmas” carol, which first appeared in a children’s book in England in 1780, may have served as a teaching tool for persecuted Catholics in England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Next, check out the surprising history behind your favorite Christmas carols.