The Customs of Christmas

12 Days of Christmas

We all sing about the 12 days of Christmas, but how many of us know what the 12 days of Christmas really are? The 12 days of Christmas, depending on when one starts counting, is the period of time between December 25 (Christmas) and January 5 or December 26 and January 6 (Epiphany).

The 12 days of Christmas was established as an official festival at the Council of Tours in 567 A.D., a council held by Roman Catholic bishops. The reason this festive time was declared is most likely that the bishops wanted the celebrating to be with joyful sobriety instead of the drunken gaming, masking, dancing, and revelry that occurred during the secular celebrations contained in the 12 days of Christmas. The Romans were celebrating Saturnalia and Kalends (the new year). In the north people celebrated Yule, and the birth of the invincible sun was a Mirthaic festival. To counter these festivals the following holidays were created: St. Stephen's Day (Boxing Day) – December 26, St. John's Day – December 27, Holly Innocents' Day – December 28, New Year's Day – January 1, and Twelfth Night – January 5 or January 6, depending on when the 12 days of Christmas started.

For many the 12 days of Christmas were still working days. Then King Alfred the Great (849-899) outlawed "legal proceedings, work, and fighting" during the festivities. This was followed by king Haakon of Norway who established the observance of the 12 days of Christmas in the mid 10th century. In medieval England peasants did not have to work the land during the 12 days of celebrating. Instead they enjoyed a feast given by their lord bringing him gifts of farm produce. English nobles celebrated with feasting, storytelling, hunting, playing and listening to music, dancing, and tournaments. This celebration is described in the story Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Because the 12 days of Christmas contained other celebrations that pre-dated Christmas, many superstitions became a part of the festivities. In northern Europe and the British Isles many believed that raging spirits were active during this time. To keep these spirits away houses and all implements in them would be cleaned. Pewter and brazen vessels had to be so bright the maids could see to put their caps on or the spirits would get them. No spinning would be done lest unfinished work bring bad luck on the spinner.

The last day of the 12 days of Christmas is called Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night often included feasting, taking down Christmas decorations, a King's cake, and drinking ale or wine. Some areas of the world still celebrate Twelfth Night; some making it part of their Epiphany celebrations.

For many today the 12 days of Christmas is known only by the song, The Twelve Days of Christmas. The earliest known printing of the song was in the children's book Mirth Without Mischief published in 1780. The lyrics were put to a French tune making it possible that the original words were French also. The exact reason the song was created is unknown. Some say the song was written as a memory game. When someone missed a verse they had to pay some sort of penalty to the others in the game. Others say the song was written in Protestant England when Catholicism was out-of-favor by Catholics as a catechism song to teach their children about the Christian faith. The song's "gifts" help children remember the teachings of the faith. The symbolism of the song is as follows:

Jesus is the Reason for the season

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