The “Twelve Days of Christmas” are the dozen days in the liturgical calendar of the Western Church between the celebration of the birth of the Christ Child (Christmas, December 25) and the coming of the Magi to visit at his house in Bethlehem (Epiphany, January 6). The Eastern Church celebrates during Epiphany rather than Christmas Day. In Hispanic and Latin American culture, January 6th is observed as Three Kings Day, or simply the Day of the Kings.
Question: Aren’t the twelve days of Christmas the days before Christmas, when you shop for presents?
Answer: No, the four week season before Christmas is called Advent, meaning the coming of Christ. The dozen days following Christmas are the twelve days of Christmas, sometimes known as Twelfth Night. The Twelfth Night is the holiday which marks the twelfth night of the Christmas Season, the eve of Epiphany. During the Tudor period in England, the Lord of Misrule would run the festivities of Christmas, ending on this Twelfth Night. Shakespeare’s play by the same name was intended to be performed as a Twelfth Night entertainment and was first performed during this time in 1602.
This festival was particularly popular during the Middle Ages especially in England, where some of the traditions were adapted from older pagan customs. Modern Neopaganism celebrates this time. This period is also called Yule or Yuletide, which while it serves as an archaic term for Christmas, harkens back to earlier German and Norse traditions.
Question: But wasn’t this song used as a memory aid for catechism by Catholics in England during the period 1558 until 1829, when Parliament finally emancipated Catholicism there, who were prohibited from ANY practice of their faith by law – private OR public — where each gift is a hidden meanings to the teachings of the faith?
Answer: This is unlikely for several reasons:
At first glance, there is nothing in this song that is uniquely Catholic in belief as compared to Protestant catechism. Any of the items in it could be embraced by Catholic and Protestant alike. While Queen Elizabeth I’s “Act of Uniformity” truly did abolished the “old worship,” and the open practice of Catholicism was forbidden by law until Parliament passed the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829, nothing in this song would have been taken as particularly Catholic or offensive to Anglican sensibilities. Indeed, during the highly Puritan time of the Commonwealth between 1649 and 1660 under the Cromwell government, Christmas was not celebrated in England until the time of Charles I and the restoration of the English monarchy.
Secondly, while there are differences between Anglican (Protestant) and Catholic belief, none of those show up in the “hidden meaning” of the song, with the possible exception of the number of sacraments.
However, it may be possible that this song has been confused with another song called “A New Dial” (also known as “In Those Twelve Days”), which dates to at least 1625 and assigns religious meanings to each of the twelve days of Christmas though not for the purposes of teaching a catechism. During those days there was a custom of singing songs called a “memory-and-forfeits performance” in which people added verses to a song cumulatively until the loser of the game forgot the first verses.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian