Twelve Days of Christmas

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Twelve Days of Christmas

Christmastide, The Days of Fate, The Nights of Mystery,

Smoke Nights, The Twelve Quiet Days

The Twelve Days of Christmas fall between December 25 and January 6, that is, between Christmas and Epiphany. Church customs, as well as some folk traditions reckon the twelve-day period as beginning on Christmas and ending on the day before Epiphany. Other traditions recognize the day after Christmas as the first of the Twelve Days and Epiphany as the last. In past centuries Europeans experienced the Twelve Days as both a festive and fearful time of year.

Establishment of the Holiday

By the fourth century most western European Christians celebrated Epiphany on January 6. In the same century Western Church officials declared December 25 to be the Feast of the Nativity. In establishing these dates for the two festivals, the Church bracketed a twelve-day period during which a number of non-Christian celebrations were already taking place. For example, the Roman new year festival of Kalends as well as the Mirthraic festival commemorating the Birth of the Invincible Sun occurred during this period. What's more, the raucous Roman holiday of Saturnalia was just drawing to a close as this period began. Further to the north some researchers speculate that the Teutonic peoples may have been observing a midwinter festival called Yule at about this time of year. The establishment of Christmas and Epiphany during this cold, dark season provided further occasions for midwinter celebrations. In 567 the Council of Tours declared the days that fall between Christmas and Epiphany to be a festal tide. This decision expanded Christmas into a Church season stretching from December 25 to January 5. In English this period is known as Christmastide.

Early Church authorities condemned the riotous festivities that characterized the pagan holidays celebrated during this period, especially Kalends, which fell on January 1. Eventually, they declared January 1 to be a Christian holiday, the Feast of the Circumcision. They urged their followers to observe this and the other Christian festivals that took place at this time of year with a joyful sobriety rather than drunken gaming, masking, dancing, and revelry.

As Christianity became more firmly rooted in Europe, political leaders declared the Twelve Days to be legal holidays. Near the end of the ninth century King Alfred the Great of England (849-899) mandated that his subjects observe the Twelve Days of Christmas, outlawing all legal proceedings, work, and fighting during that time. The Norwegian King Haakon the Good (d. c. 961) established the Christian observance of the festival in Norway in the middle of the tenth century.

Feasting, Resting, Revelry, and Charity

In late medieval England, manor house records indicate that the gentry indeed exempted the peasants who worked their lands from labor during these days. Of course the weather also cooperated, late December presenting the farmer with little to do in the fields or barns. Custom also dictated that the lord provide a feast for all those working on his lands. In exchange, the workers, or villeins, were expected to bring gifts of farm produce to the manor house.

The well-to-do enjoyed a variety of diversions during the Twelve Days, including feasting, storytelling, hunting, playing and listening to music, and watching and participating in dances and tournaments. King Richard II of England (1367-1400) organized a Christmas tournament that drew knights from all over Europe. The jousting matches lasted nearly two weeks and were followed each evening by feasting and dancing. The late medieval tale Sir Gawain and theGreen Knight, set in England during the Christmas season, offers a marvelous description of how the well-to-do entertained themselves during these festival days.

By the end of the Middle Ages both jousting and the manorial feast for those who worked on large estates disappeared as ways of celebrating the Twelve Days. Although some landowners continued to entertain the poor at this time of year, most preferred to feast with family and friends. Records from the time of the Renaissance indicate that the English continued to enjoy feasting, dancing, musicmaking, and performances of various kinds during the Twelve Days (see also Christmas Carol; Lord of Misrule; Nativity Play). Playgoing was another popular holiday diversion around the time of the Renaissance. Lastly, the courtly masque evolved out of the mumming and disguising practices already common at this time of year during this era.

The idea that the wealthy should make some special provision for the poor during the Twelve Days of Christmas lingered throughout the following centuries. As late as the nineteenth century some English farm laborers felt entitled to claim Christmas hospitality from the local landlord. The customs associated with Boxing Day also reflected the notion that the well-to-do should give generously around Christmas time. This noble ideal inspired the American writer Washington Irving (1783-1859) to write a story about an English squire who tried to maintain old-fashioned Christmas hospitality by keeping an open house during the Twelve Days. Irving's work influenced the English writer Charles Dickens (1812-1870). Dickens's famous work A Christmas Carol tells the story of a rich and greedy old man who learns compassion and charity one Christmas Eve.

Wealthy colonial Americans who celebrated Christmas observed the Twelve Days as a period of festivity, relaxation, and romance. Many parties took place during the twelve days. Young, single people found these occasions ideal for light-hearted flirting or serious scouting for a possible mate. Many weddings also took place during this period.

Other Holidays

A variety of holidays punctuate the Twelve Days of Christmas. The customs, stories, and festivities associated with these observances add additional color to the celebration of the Twelve Days. These holidays include St. Stephen's Day on December 26, which later became Boxing Day in England, St. John's Day on December 27, Holy Innocents' Day on December 28, New Year's Day and the Feast of the Circumcision on January 1, and Twelfth Night on January 5 or 6. These celebrations, along with the festivities associated with the Twelve Days themselves, declined as European societies became increasingly industrialized.

Ghosts and Spirits

Much of the lore and many of the customs associated with the Twelve Days suggest that ordinary people viewed the time as one in which supernatural forces and spirits roamed the earth. Indeed, in ancient times the pagan observers of the Yule festival believed that the spirits of the dead returned to earth during these few days.

Perhaps this belief eventually gave rise to the lore surrounding the Wild Hunt. In much of northern Europe this band of fierce spirits was believed to ride the stormy night skies during the Twelve Days of Christmas. In the German-speaking lands the witch-like figure of Berchta haunted the Twelve Days. In Scandinavia the mischievous Jultomten lurked about the house during this season. In Iceland the prankster spirits known as the Christmas Lads annoyed householders while keeping just out of sight. Greek folk beliefs suggested that small goblins known as the kallikantzari caused many a mishap during the Twelve Days. In parts of northern Europe folk beliefs warned that bears, werewolves, and trolls wandered about preying on the unwary. British folklore suggested that fairies and the Will o' the Wisp, a magical creature who appeared as a light or flame in the darkness, hindered those who traveled abroad on these dark nights (see also Elves). Perhaps the English custom of telling ghost stories at Christmas time can be traced back to the widespread European folk belief that ghosts and spirits are especially active at this time of year.

Folklore suggested many remedies for this situation. In Germany and Austria people burned incense in their homes and churches throughout the Twelve Days. They believed that the smoke drove out evil influences and spirits. In fact, some Germans referred to the Twelve Days as the "Smoke Nights," Rauchnächte in German, in reference to this custom. Moreover, German speakers sometimes referred to the Twelve Days as the "Nights of Mystery," perhaps in reference to the religious significance of the season as well as the heightened activity of the spirit world during these days. Other German folk customs associated with the Twelve Days included making loud noises, crossing oneself, wearing frightening masks and costumes, and burning bonfires as ways of scaring off harmful spirits. In spite of all this noise and activity, people from the German region of Bavaria called this period the "Twelve Quiet Days." This name reflects old folk beliefs found in parts of England, Denmark, and Germany prohibiting spinning, washing, cleaning, and baking during this time.

While Germans and Austrians tried to scare off the Christmas season goblins, the Scandinavians tried to appease their relatively harmless visitors. Scandinavian folk custom advised householders that supplying the Jultomten with a nightly bowl of porridge would put these household sprites in a better mood. The Greeks, on the other hand, approached the problem in much the same way as did the Germans. Greek lore warned householders to keep a fire burning in the hearth during the Twelve Days to ward off the kallikantzari (see also Greece, Christmas in).


In some parts of central Europe, events that transpired during the Twelve Days were taken as omens of what would happen in the coming twelve months. For example, the weather that occurred during the Twelve Days foretold the year's weather patterns, according to folk belief. In German-speaking lands the Twelve Days were sometimes called the "Days of Fate," perhaps in reference to these kinds of beliefs. Folklore also suggested that dreams occurring during these days predicted coming events. In past eras girls employed magical formulas at this time of year to discover who their future husbands would be. One such silly exercise recommended throwing a shoe into a pear tree twelve times in a row. If the shoe stuck in the tree on any of these attempts, one could rest assured of marrying the man of one's dreams.

Further Reading

Christmas in Germany. Lincolnwood, Ill.: Passport Books, 1995. Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. The Glory and Pageantry of Christmas. Chicago: Time-Life Books, 1963. Hadfield, Miles, and John Hadfield. The Twelve Days of Christmas. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown and Company, 1961. Henisch, Bridget. Cakes and Characters: An English Christmas Tradition. London, England: Prospect Books, 1984. Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and Company, 1976. Hutton, Ronald. The Rise and Fall of Merry England. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1994. ---. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. Lehane, Brendan. The Book of Christmas. Chicago: Time-Life Books, 1986. MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Pimlott, J. A. R. The Englishman's Christmas. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1978. Russ, Jennifer. German Festivals and Customs. London, England: Oswald Wolff, 1982.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003

Twelve Days of Christmas

presents increase with each day of Yuletide. [Am. Music: “Twelve Days of Christmas” in Rockwell]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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