Here's Why There Are 12 Days of Christmas
Here’s Why There Are 12 Days of Christmas

Here’s Why There Are 12 Days of Christmas.

The way Christmas is celebrated in the 21st century treats the 25th December like its end and climax.

But originally – and as remains the case in religious worship – the 25th December was the *beginning* of Christmas, as declared by the Council of Tours in 567 AD.

Here’s Why There Are 12 Days of Christmas.

The period leading up to Christmas is known as “Advent”, defined by the Council of Tours as a season of preparation.

Hence Advent Calendars, which first appeared in the 19th century, counting down the days until the Christmas season begins, not simply to Christmas Day.

And so what Christmas actually refers to is Christmastide.

This is a festive religious season which celebrates the Nativity of Jesus – his birth and the events surrounding it – and which begins on the day of his birth, the 25th December, rather than ending with it.

Here's why there are 12 Days of Christmas

How long does this festive season last?

Twelve Days, as immortalised in the popular song, which originated in English folk music.

So Christmas is only twelve days long, beginning on 25th December and ending on 5th January; its structure, then, is religious in nature.

Each of the twelve days celebrates a saint. For example, after Christmas Day comes St Stephen’s Day on 26th.

And on 28th comes Childermas – otherwise known as Holy Innocent’s Day – which marks the massacre of all male children under two by King Herod, as told in the Gospels.

But in the Middle Ages the Twelve Days of Christmas – also known as Twelvetide – was a period of continuous feasting and merrymaking, perhaps the most joyous time of the year.

It was a time of permitted disorder, raucous celebration, and wild partying.

A big part of Twelvetide was the election of a “Lord of Misrule” to oversee the festivities – which included feasting, plenty of drinking, parties, songs, dancing, costumes, pantomines, and the performance of plays.

These Twelvetide celebrations descended from pagan festivals which had been adapted during the Christianisation of Europe.

Social rules were suspended and licentious behaviour was allowed, from simply mocking the clergy to rather more obscene activities.

The culmination of these celebrations and of Christmastide itself is Twelfth Night, on 5th January.

Christmas carols were sung and a special cake was made containing a bean and a pea – those who found them became King and Queen of the night’s festivites, the last of the season.

It was for the entertainments of Twelfth Night that Shakespeare wrote his play of the same name, for performance at a celebration held by Queen Elizabeth I in Whitehall on 6th January 1601.

After Twelfth Night Christmas is over, and decorations must be taken down.

On 6th January the Epiphany is celebrated, which commemorates the visit of the Three Kings to the infant Jesus.

Thus begins Epiphanytide, the next season in the Christian liturgical calendar.

Many of these dates vary between Christian denominations, such as whether Christmas begins on 24th, 25th, or even 26th December, and how long Christmastide actually lasts.

For some it coincides with Twelvetide and ends on 5th January, and for others it continues until February.

But for centuries, whether in religious or secular terms, Christmas started on 25th December (or thereabouts) and continued for twelve more days of venerating saints or licentious drinking and feasting – or both.