History Articles

History of Good Friday

April 13, 2006 /


For centuries, pilgrims have walked the Via Dolorosa, “the way of sorrow” in Jerusalem, following the path Jesus took from the judgement seat of Pilate at the Antonia in the eastern part of the city through several “stations of the Cross” to the ultimate location at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of the crucifixion and burial.

Following Pilate’s sentence, Jesus was led away to be crucified. Crucifixion was a form of torture and execution practiced by many of the ancient societies, including Persia, Carthage, India, Scythia, Assyria, and Germanic tribes. The Phoenicians were probably the first to use a transverse cross beam rather than just an upright stake in the ground. From the Phoenicians the Romans adopted this practice as the primary means of execution of rebellious slaves and provincials who were not Roman citizens. During the Jewish revolt in A.D. 66 for example, the Romans crucified 3,600 Jews, many of them of the aristocracy.

The victim was first scourged with a ‘flagellum’ to weaken them before he was hung on the cross. Near the top of the cross was affixed the ‘titulus’ or inscription identifying the criminal and the cause of his execution. Above Jesus’ cross in Greek, Hebrew (Aramaic), and Latin were printed the words “Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews”. The Latin acronym INRI comes from this; “Iesus Nazarethis Rex Iudaeorum”.

By the way, Jesus’ middle name was not “H”, as in “Jesus H. Christ”. Rather it comes from a misunderstanding of the letters “IHS”. This is an abbreviation of Jesus in Greek, “IHSOUS”, and should properly be written with a line above the ‘h’ signifying an abbreviation.

Death by crucifixion was painful and protracted. It seldom occurred before thirty-six hours, sometimes took as long as nine days, and resulted from hunger and traumatic exposure. If it was decided to hasten the death of the victim, his legs were smashed with a heavy club or hammer. However, Jesus died within just a few hours. The New Testament, rather than dwelling on this painful death, simply recounts that “they crucified him”.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

In part from Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time

History of the Trial of Jesus

April 13, 2006 /
Categories: , , ,

The Trial of JesusTHE TRIAL OF JESUS

Beginning Thursday night and extending into Friday morning of Holy Week, the trial of Jesus, which led to his crucifixion, was, in reality, a series of about half a dozen trials distributed across several locations in Jerusalem.

Some of these locations are captured in the tradition of the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrow, a series of sites that Christian pilgrims take through the streets of modern Jerusalem commemorating the last hours before Jesus arrived at Golgotha on Good Friday.


History of Passover

April 13, 2006 /


This evening at sunset marks the beginning of Passover. Exodus 12 in the Bible tells the story of Passover from the life of Moses. Ten plagues were visited upon the Egyptian pharaoh (starring Yul Brenner, but much better in “The King and I”) to get his attention to release the “children of Israel” from bondage. The final plague was the death of the first-born son. The Jews were to smear the blood of a lamb upon their door posts, so that the angel of death would “Passover” them unharmed. Pharaoh relented and released the Israelites.

In making their hasty exit, the Jews did not have time to let their bread rise, so in commemoration, they celebrate the Passover Seder (“order”) meal with unleavened bread, bitter herbs, and roast lamb to be eaten in traveling garb. This Feast of Unleavened Bread is a major holiday in the Jewish when Jews from all over the world return to Jerusalem. During Passion Week, which was at Passover, the Jerusalem of Jesus’ time would have tripled from its population of about 50,000.

Could “The Last Supper” (made famous by da Vinci’s painting) that Jesus had with his disciples in the Upper Room have been a Passover meal? It seems likely. It was at about the right time in the calendar. Some churches commemorate this meal by using unleavened bread for their Communion Eucharist.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

History of Maundy Thursday

April 11, 2006 /


Amid the bustle of Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter, Maundy Thursday is easy to overlook. Few calendars label it, and some churches don’t observe it at all, though it may be the oldest of the Holy Week observances. It’s worth asking why, and how, generations of Christians have revered this day.

The Middle English word “Maundy” comes from the Latin “mandatum,” meaning “command.” The reference is John 13:34: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Jesus spoke those words at the Last Supper, which took place the Thursday before Easter.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, Maundy Thursday Evening marks the beginning of Easter Triduum. A triduum is a space of three days usually accompanying a church festival or holy days that are devoted to special prayer and observance. Maundy Thursday is followed by Good Friday, Holy Saturday and concludes with evening prayers on Easter Sunday.

Protestant churches that do observe Maundy Thursday may offer a dramatic re-enactment of the Last Supper or another special Communion service. Foot-washing services and adapted Passover Seders are also fairly popular, especially in Anglican, Lutheran, and other liturgical Protestant churches. Not surprisingly, Protestants generally stick close to biblical texts when constructing a special service. Catholic and Orthodox traditions add a few other elements to the observance.

In the Middle Ages, Maundy Thursday was sometimes called Shere Thursday, “shere” meaning “pure” or “guilt-free.” (“Shere” also had something to do with shearing, as it was customary for medieval men to cut their hair and beards on this day.) Medieval Christians believed they could achieve purity by performing penance throughout Lent. The Catholic church recognized the achievement by formally reconciling penitents and, in some areas, giving them a green branch. New converts who had prepared their hearts, and memorized their creed, during Lent were taken through baptism at the Thursday service.

Because of the Maundy Thursday connection with baptism, it has long been a Catholic custom to consecrate the year’s supply of holy oils for baptism, anointing the sick, and Confirmation on this day. Orthodox clergy take time during the liturgy to prepare the “Amnos,” the Communion elements that will be given to the sick throughout the year.

A few European countries have added cultural observances to the list of church traditions. In England, the monarch distributes small purses of Maundy Money to elderly residents of the town selected for each year’s service. The practice dates back to 1210, when King John gave garments, knives, food, and other gifts to poor men on Maundy Thursday in accordance with Christ’s mandate to love others. Germans, who call the day “Gründonnerstag” (“Green Thursday”), eat green vegetables, especially spinach. The association with green may come from the gift of green branches to penitents or from a confusion of the old German words meaning “green” (grun) and “to weep” (greinen), connected to the English word “to groan.”

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

History of the Sanhedrin

April 10, 2006 /


The Greek word ‘sunedrion’, translated council is referred to in the New Testament as “the Great Law-Court”, “the Court of Seventy-One”, and “the rulers and elders and scribes”. It was the supreme theocratic court of the Jews and reflected the local autonomy which the Greek and Roman powers granted the Jewish nation. Its origin can be traced back as far as 200 B.C. The council had 70 members plus the ruling high priest. Three professional groups composed the council: high priests (the acting high priest and former high priests) and members of the chief-priestly families; elders (tribal and family heads of the people and the priesthood); and scribes (legal professionals). At the time of Jesus two religio-political parties within Judaism were represented in this membership: the Sadducees of the majority and the Pharisees of the minority. Caiaphas the high priest was a Sadducee. Most of the scribes were Pharisees. The presiding officer of the council was usually the high priest.

The council was connected with the minor courts, being the highest court of appeal from these. The Sanhedrin’s authority was broad and far-reaching, involving legislation, administration, and justice. There was religious, civil, and criminal jurisdiction. However, during the time of Jesus, the council had lost to the Roman governor the power of capital punishment. The council met daily, except on Sabbath and feast days, in a session room adjoining the temple. In extraordinary cases, the council met at the house of the high priest. One of the responsibilities of the Sanhedrin was the identification, and confirmation of the Messiah. The gospel writers identify a delegation from the council going out to question John the Baptist as to whether he was the Messiah. There were about a dozen false Messiahs running around during the first part of this century deceiving the people, and it was the responsibility of the council to identify and denounce them. This is why Jesus had to eventually come into conflict with them.

Although the minority party within the council was the Pharisees, they were the majority party outside the council. During the first century, Philo tells us they numbered six thousand. They were highly respected among the people, operating principally in the synagogues. The typical Jewish boy would have received his religious training from a Pharisee. Their name meant “separated ones” and they kept themselves pure of any corrupting influence, including Greek or Roman influences. They first appeared more than a century before Jesus though by this time had little interest in politics. They had a highly developed system of rabbinic tradition which sought to apply the Biblical Law to a variety of circumstances. They held to three doctrines that the Sadducees did not: the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the body, and angels and demons. This they had in common with Jesus, and it should be noted that these were devout laymen, not priests. Where they conflicted with Jesus was the charge that in their over attention to the tradition of men concerning the minutiae of the Law, they had largely neglected the real intention of the Law. Numbered among the Pharisees were Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, the great teacher Gamaliel, and his student Saul of Tarsus, also named Paul.

The Sadducees seem to have gotten their name from “zaddikim” the righteous ones. They had little in common with the Pharisees except their antagonism toward Jesus. They represented the Jewish aristocracy and the high priesthood. They had made their peace with the political rulers and had attained positions of wealth and influence. Temple administration and ritual was their specific responsibility. Being well educated and wealthy, they held themselves aloof from the masses and were unpopular with them. They were externally religious and were very political, seeing Jesus as a threat to the status quo. Unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees held only to the written Law, specifically the first five books of Moses, the Torah.

The New Testament calls two men high priest, Annas and Caiaphas. It turns out that Caiaphas was actually the current high priest at this time, though there are a number of reasons why Annas was called high priest. He was the father-in-law of Caiaphas and had been high priest from A.D. 6-15, when he had been deposed by the Roman governor, Valerius Gratus, shortly after the governor took office. The governor tried three more high priests within the next three years until he appointed Caiaphas, in A.D. 18, a man he found cooperative. Nevertheless, Annas was the patriarch and real power behind the high priesthood. While the title was used later for Annas as an honorific, the Jews still saw the high priesthood as an office for life, whether the Romans felt that way or not. He was the senior ex-high priest and may have presided over the council at times. This is why Jesus was first brought to him during his trial.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

from Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time

History of Herod Antipas

April 9, 2006 /


Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great (whom we met in the Christmas story) and Malthake. After his father’s death in 4 B.C. he was made tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea in Trans-Jordan. Like his father, he was a great lover of great and artistic architectural works, and built the beautiful Tiberias (named after guess who), as capital of his kingdom on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (which was renamed Sea of Tiberias).

He was married to the daughter of Aretas, king of Arabia, but afterwards divorced her to the wrath of her father. Antipas found himself at war with the king and was saved only with the help of Rome. He took away from his half-brother, Herod Philip, his wife Herodias. Her influence over him led to his utter ruin. As you may recall the story of John the Baptist, the prophet denounced Antipas’ breaking the Jewish law by taking his brother’s wife. The historian Josephus further tells us that Antipas feared the prophet’s popularity with the people, and subsequently imprisoned him. Herodias did not like the Baptizer and after her daughter Salome pleased the ruler by her dance, after which he promised the girl anything up to half his kingdom, the head of John was requested. This execution did not make Antipas any more popular with the people.

This is the Herod that Jesus called “that fox”. Jesus was not referring to personal pulchritude. From a study of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew literature it can be seen that the fox is both crafty and inferior in its position. The fox is an insignificant or base person, in contrast to the lion. He lacks real power and dignity, using cunning deceit to achieve his aims.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

Inspired in part from Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time

History of Pontius Pilate

April 7, 2006 /


His name provides two valuable clues to his background and ancestry. The family name, Pontius was that of a prominent clan among the Samnites, hill cousins of the Latin Romans. They had almost conquered Rome in several fierce wars. The Pontii were of noble blood, but when Rome finally absorbed the Samnites, their aristocracy was demoted to the Roman equestrian or middle-class order, rather than the senatorial order. It is Pilate’s personal name Pilatus that proves almost conclusively that he was of Samnite origin. Pilatus means “armed-with-a-javelin”. The pilum or javelin was six feet long, half wooden and half pointed iron shaft, which the Samnite mountaineers hurled at their enemies with devastating effect. The Romans quickly copied it, and it was this pilum in fact, that made the Roman Empire possible.

Some historians feel that Pilate rose to prominence and perhaps gained the governorship of Judea under the sponsorship of Sejanus. Lucius Aelius Sejanus was, like Pilate, of the equestrian order. He was the prefect, or head of the Preatorian Guard, the personal body guard of the emperor. Sejanus was an ambitious man. He had the complete trust of the emperor Tiberius, who at this time was living in self-exile on the island of Capri while engaging in various debaucheries. It is quite likely that at this time Pilate was admitted to the inner circle of ‘amici Caesaris’ or friends of Caesar, an elite fraternity of imperial advisors open only to senators or equestrians high in imperial service. This fact would play a part in the later trial against Jesus. The emperor was getting old and paranoid. Sejanus took advantage of this and offered up to Caesar the names of senators he claimed were not loyal to Rome. Tiberius would convict them of maiestas, or treason. Their property and wealth were forfeit, and they usually committed suicide to avoid bringing public shame upon their name. Sejanus hoped to consolidate his power as well as advance himself in the confidence of the emperor, hoping perhaps to become co-consul with Tiberius. However his boldness did not go unnoticed and through the efforts of the future emperors Caligula and Claudius, the plots of Sejanus were made known to the emperor, and Sejanus himself was convicted of maiestas. His allies as well became suspect.

It is unlikely that Pilate was an incompetent official, for he ruled Judea from A.D. 26 to 36. It is doubtful that the emperor Tiberius, who insisted on good principal administration, would have retained Pilate for so long, the second longest tenure of any first-century Roman governor in Palestine. Never the less, the governorship of Judea was a most taxing experience and, aside from Good Friday, it seems from our sources Philo and Josephus that there were a number of other incidents in which Pilate blundered.

In what came to be called “the affair of the Roman standards”, Pilate’s troops once marched into Jerusalem carrying medallions with the emperor’s image or bust among their regimental standards. This provoked a five-day demonstration by the Jews at the Provincial capital, Caeserea, which protested these effigies as a violation of Jewish law concerning engraven images. Pilate finally relented and ordered the offensive standards removed.

Later, he built an aqueduct from cisterns near Bethlehem to improve Jerusalem’s water supply, but paid for it with funds from the Temple treasury. This sparked another riot, which was put down only after bloodshed, even though Pilate had cautioned his troops not to use swords.
On another occasion, Pilate set up several golden shields in his Jerusalem headquarters that, unlike the standards, bore no images, only a bare inscription of dedication to Tiberius. Nevertheless, the people protested, but this time Pilate refused to remove them. The Jews, with the help of Herod Antipas, formally protested to Tiberius. In a very testy letter, the emperor ordered Pilate to transfer the shields to a temple in Caserea, and ominously warned him to uphold all the religious and political customs of his Jewish subjects. This last episode occurred just five months before Good Friday.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian


from Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time


P.S. An excellent historical novel is available by Paul L. Maier, history professor at Western Michigan Univesity called Pontius Pilate: A Biographical Novel

Historical Climate of Easter

April 5, 2006 /


What was the historical climate surrounding the last week of the life of Jesus of Nazareth? This man born to die, not just in the normal sense, but in some special sense, entered Jerusalem amidst a torrent of political, social and economic turbulence. The events in Palestine at this time are rarely linked to the larger context which controlled the province: the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, the culmination of Jesus’ career was really a tale of two cities – Jerusalem and Rome. In these historical notes we will examine this climate. Some of the subjects we will examine include:


Palm Sunday

  • what was the climate of the city when Jesus entered?

The Trial

  • what took place during the trials, what laws were involved?

The Crucifixion

  • what was involved?

The Resurrection

  • what do we know about it?



  • who was he, what were the pressures he faced, did he fly a plane?


  • was he as clever as his father, Herod the Great

Pharisees & Sadducees

  • how were they related, which held the greater power, and how were their names spelled.

The Sanhedrin & the High Priests

  • what was the makeup and jurisdiction of the council. Who was the current High Priest, Annas or Caiaphus, the New Testament calls them both High Priest?

Our story begins during the last week of March, A.D. 33. The relationship between the Jews and Rome went back at least 100 years. In 63 B.C. a dispute arose between two factions of the high priestly family. One of the factions appealed to Rome for assistance. The result of this was that General Pompey arrived in Palestine during his reorganization of the East and made Judea a Roman client kingdom. Herod the Great was appointed king (remember him from the Christmas story?). Upon his death in 4 B.C. the kingdom was divided into 4 tetrarchies among his sons. His son Herod Antipas (we’ll meet him again) was given Galilee and Pereae. Archelaus received Judah, Idumea, and Samaria which he ruled so poorly that he was banished and replaced by a succession of Roman governors or prefects. Judea was neither one of the more important, nor more illustrious provinces and for that reason was not ruled over by a member of the more noble ‘senatorial’ class. Instead, a member of the equestrian class (equus=horse Lat., ‘knight’ or official), the middle class which made up an important part of the Roman bureaucracy and military. The sixth of these governors was Pontius Pilate.

For centuries the Jewish people had awaited the coming of a Messiah, “the anointed one” of God who would rule on the throne of King David and deliver them from their oppressors. This expectation ran throughout the Old Testament, with a number of themes attached: God’s vice-regent on earth, a deliverer from political oppression, a suffering servant who would deliver the people from their sins, an eternal ruler. During the period between the Old and New Testaments, ca 400 B.C to A.D. 65, a large amount of literature surfaced, called apocryphal and apocalyptic literature, repeating and embellishing the concept of the Messiah. (The Greek word of the Hebrew Messiah is christos, or “anointed one”, from which we get the word Christ. Christ was not Jesus’ name, but rather a title, Jesus the Christ.) Before the Romans, the Jewish people had suffered under a number of occupying oppressors, including the Greeks, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Medeo-Persians. After almost a hundred years under the Romans the expectation for the Messiah had reached almost a fever pitch. This was the condition when Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

Inspired by Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time

History of April Fools Day

March 31, 2006 /


April Fools’ Day, or All Fools’ Day, is the name given to the custom of playing practical jokes on friends on that day, or sending them on fools errands. The origin of this custom has been much disputed; it is in some way a relic of those once universal festivities held at the vernal equinox, which, beginning on the old New Year’s day, March 25, ended on April 1.

Another view is that it is a farcical commemoration of Jesus’ trials during Passion Week when he was sent from Annas’ House to Caiaphas’ Palace to Pilate’s Praetorium to Herod’s Hasmonean Palace and back to Pilate again… which culminated in his crucifixion on Good Friday, which may have been April 1.

The observance in the UK of April 1 goes back to ancient times, though it did not appear as a common customt until the early 1700s. In Scotland the custom was known as “hunting the gowk”, i.e., the cuckoo, and April fools were “April gowks.” The France would designate this person as poisson d’avril.

In the US individuals and employees would concoct elaborate hoaxes on April Fools’ Day. At Sun Microsystems in Silicon Valley, for example, the size and complexity of these hoaxes were legendary in the 1980s in particular, with local television and radio media showing up to capture the event.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood hysterian

History of St. Patrick’s Day

March 16, 2006 /


Although much of the life of the patron saint of Ireland is shrouded in legend, he was probably born around the year 389. What we do know about him comes from his book, “The Confession”, which he wrote near the end of his life. It begins, “I am Patrick, a sinner, most uncultivated and least of all the faithful…My father was Calpornius, a deacon, a son of Potitus, a presbyter, who was at the village of Bannavem Taberniea.” He was born it seems in the Severn Valley in England; British, not Irish. He was doubtless educated in pre-Anglo-Saxon Britain under a Christian influence with a reverence for the Roman Empire, of which he was a citizen. His father was a landowner and together with his family he lived on their estate. At the age of sixteen, when he claimed he “did not then know the true God,” he was carried off by a band of Irish marauders. Irish tradition says he tended the herds of a chieftain in the county Antrim. His bondage lasted for six years during which time, as he wrote, “turned with all my heart to the Lord my God.”

He fled 200 miles to the coast of Wicklow, and encountered a ship engaged in the export of Irish wolf-dogs. After three days at sea the traders landed, probably on the west coast of Gaul, and journeyed twenty-eight days through the desert. At the end of two months Patrick parted company with his companions and spent a few years in the monastery of Lerins. After returning home from the Mediterranean the idea of missionary enterprise in Ireland came to him. He seems to have proceeded to Auxerre where he was ordained by Bishop Amator and spent at least fourteen years there.

While in Ireland Patrick was both an evangelist of the gospel of Jesus and an organizer of the faithful. He battled heresy as well as engaged in trials of skill against Druids. There is some evidence that he traveled to Rome around 441-443 and brought back with him some valuable relics. On his return he founded the church and monastery of Armagh. Some years later he retired, probably to Saul in Dalaradia.

As one travels through Ireland, there are many stories and legends about Patrick. One in Dublin has it that the St. Patrick Cathedral (pictured at the top) is situated at the site of an old well where Patrick would baptize converts into the faith. There is a stone tablet in front of the church commemorating the location (pictured at right).

In modern times St. Patrick’s day has become primarily an ethnic holiday celebrating Irish heritage in much the same way as Columbus Day is a celebration of Italian ethnicity in the United States. You can’t close down the schools on St. Patrick’s Day without showing ethnic bias. So Massachusetts’s Suffolk County closes the schools to commemorate March 17, 1776, the day the British cleared out of Boston. For the record, they call it Evacuation Day.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

History of Benjamin Franklin

January 17, 2006 /
Categories: ,


As we celebrate the 300th birthday of this great American, we know him as a writer, publisher, merchant, scientist, moral philosopher, and inventor. Musically he invented the glass harmonica, but he also invented the Franklin stove, and started the first lending library and fire brigade in Philadelphia.

He did experiments in electricity and developed the lightning rod.

As one of the earliest and oldest of the Founding Father, he served as lobbyist to England.

He was one of the five drafters of the American Declaration of Independence, along with John Adams and primary drafter Thomas Jefferson. Franklin was 70. At 81 he served as the oldest delegate at the Constitutional Convention, recommending a bi-cameral legislature.

During the Revolutionary War, he served as Minister to France and managed, with his sagacity and salon celebrity, to convince the French King Louis XVI to support the American cause financially and militarily. He dazzled the salon crowd with his notoriety and flirtation, much to John Adam’s chagrin.

He was the most famous private citizen in America and the most celebrated American in Europe.

As a moral philosopher he was a personal mystery. Though he wrote pithy and wise sayings in “Poor Richards’ Almanac” he did not live by all of them himself. He is usually considered a deist, at least in the early part of his life, but he proposed clergy-led prayer each morning during the Constitutional Convention in June of 1787. He said “God governs the affairs of men” yet he also said, “I have some doubts as to [Jesus’] divinity.”

Puritan Ezra Stiles, president of Yale, knew of Franklin’s deist leanings, but wanted, if possible, to pin down the nimble-footed freethinker to some basics. In friendship Stiles asked for some kind of creedal confession, however limited. Franklin, who said that this was the first time he had ever been asked, on March 9, 1790, readily obliged:

“Here is my creed. I believe in one God, Creator of the universe: that he governs the world by his providence. That he ought to be worshiped. That the most acceptable service we can render to him is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal and will be treated with justice in another life respect[ing] its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental principles of all sound religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever sect I meet with them.”

In addition, Stiles wanted to know specifically what Franklin thought of Jesus: Was Franklin really a Christian or not? Franklin responded that Jesus had taught the best system of morals and religion that “the world ever saw.” But on the troublesome question of the divinity of Jesus, he had along with other deists “some doubts.” It was an issue, he said, that he had never carefully studied and, writing only five weeks before his death, he thought it “needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opport[unity] of know[ing]the truth with less trouble.” It would be difficult to burn a heretic like that.

For his own epitaph, Franklin wrote:

“The body of Benjamin Franklin, printer, like the cover of an old book, its contents torn out, stripped of its lettering, and gilding, lies here, food for worms. But the work shall not be lost; for it will, as he believed, appear once more in a new and more elegant edition, revised and corrected by the Author.”

Though on his gravestone appeared only “BENJAMIN And DEBORAH FRANKLIN 1790.” His funeral in Philadelphia attracted the largest crowd of mourners ever known, an estimated 20,000 mourners.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

History of the Twelve Days of Christmas

December 25, 2005 /


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