The Twelve Days of Christmas - They're When?
By Pearl Homiak
Believe it or not, December 25th is the first day of Christmas. You'd
never know it, especially if you happen to be shopping anytime after Halloween. Plastic
crèches, soldiers, and Santa Clauses; Christmas trees, colored and sometimes blinking
lights; red ribbons, candy canes, and homes and lawns with varying degrees of lighted
decorations-all begin to mushroom each year from the beginning of November, and sometimes
I remember that when I was very young Christmas was hardly even
mentioned before Thanksgiving. No one that we knew put up a Christmas tree until a few
days before Christmas (December 25th; "Orthodox Christmas" took place on January 7th in
those days. However, most Orthodox people decorated for Christmas on December 25th,
which was celebrated as a gift-giving day. January 7th was reserved for the religious
observance of Christmas). Even department stores held off until their
day-after-Thanksgiving sales. Christmas parties took place after Christmas, and people
sang and played recordings of Christmas carols from Christmas Eve until New Year's Day
or even up to Epiphany. The Christmas season was a meaningful time back then, but what is
There is a song we all know called "The Twelve Days of Christmas" that
describes gift giving over a period of time-twelve days. St. Ephraim the Syrian first
mentioned the period of the "twelve days," according to one source, sometime before the
The Council of Tours made it official in 597. This period of time
begins at Christmas and ends at Epiphany.
The origin of the song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas," has been
recently disputed. I had no idea it was more than a cute song until a friend of mine
e-mailed an explanation of it to me a few years ago. According to the missive I received,
the song was actually a "catechism song" used by Catholics in England during the
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The song was supposedly used to teach children the
tenets of the faith during this period, when law forbade practicing Catholicism. As such,
the song's gifts and other images have the following religious representations (compiled
from various sources):
- True love = God
- Me = every baptized person
- Partridge = Jesus Christ, who, like a bird, will protect God's defenseless
- Pear tree = the Cross, which was made from a tree.
- 2 Turtle doves = the Old and New Testaments; also, two turtle doves were
sacrificed when Jesus was first brought to the temple,
- 3 French hens = faith, hope, and charity (sacrificial giving); also, gold,
frankincense, and myrrh from the Wise Men
- 4 Calling birds = the four Gospels and/or the four Evangelists
- 5 Golden rings = the first five books of the Old Testament (the Pentateuch)
which gives the history of man's fall from grace
- 6 Geese a-laying = the six days of creation
- 7 Swans a-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (Romans 12:6-8); also,
the seven sacraments
- 8 Maids a-milking = the eight Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10); also, milking
symbolizes Christ's love for us
- 9 Ladies dancing = the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23)
- 10 Lords a-leaping = the Ten Commandments
- 11 Pipers piping = the eleven faithful Apostles
- 12 Drummers drumming = the twelve points of the Apostles Creed; also, the twelve Apostles preaching
Recently I came across a different source of the song. It seems that
several centuries ago in France children played a non-religious memory game called "The
Twelve Days of Christmas." Each child recited a verse of the song. If someone missed a
verse he/she had a consequence. This game was apparently first recorded in a book
published in England in the late 18th century. However, the game could have been known
for a long time before that. Further, the religious application of it might have been
based on the French game in the first place. Who knows? And, anyway, is it really
important? There is more than one way to convey the tenets of faith, and singing
representative songs is one way to do it.
We still hear the song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas," but it has
nothing to do with Christianity. (I haven't found any information about children today
playing a game called by the same name). Sadly, many modern-day children don't know the
real story of Christmas, of Christ's Nativity. For them Christmas is only a great
decorating, celebrating, and present-getting time that happens to begin revving up after
Halloween and reaches its high point on December 25th. (Even Thanksgiving gets
minimized). After that, everything returns to "normal," except for more celebrating on
New Year's Eve.
Maybe people think the "twelve days of Christmas" start on December
13th and are the most important shopping days before Christmas. To some people "the
twelve days of Christmas" might even be the twelve
Saturday-and-Sunday-department-store-best-sale-days between Halloween and Christmas
(there really are twelve Saturdays and Sundays during this time, and don't most people
I see nothing wrong with shopping well in advance for the sake of my
personal economy and more unique and unhurried gift selection. (In fact, one year I
actually got all of my Christmas shopping done before advent started. The only store I
went to during advent was the grocery story, and that as rarely as I could. What a
meaningful advent and Christmas I had that year!). However, the untimely pre-season
decorating, the never-ending-department-store-carol-playing, and the during-advent
Christmas partying are too much for me. I'm all for getting things back into perspective.
We shouldn't allow ourselves to be dictated to by advertising and department store
companies. Let's put the celebration of Christmas back where it belongs.
A while back I decided to make changes in my Christmas-related habits
to refocus my celebration of Christ's Nativity. I stopped playing tapes of Christmas
carols during advent. Instead, I started playing them on Christmas day. We also continued
to turn the TV off during advent, something we have done for more than twenty years
(except for one chaotic year).
Over the last several years I have deliberately been sending my
Christmas cards after December 25th when I can truly say, "Christ is Born! Glorify Him!"
It just seems to make more sense that way. While everyone else is watching TV or snoozing
after Christmas dinner, I sit down after the dishes are done and write out my Christmas
cards. If I send out a Christmas letter, I write it then. Within the next couple of days,
I mail out my cards with joy, rather than the hurry-up-let's-get-this-over-with anxiety
that plagues pre-Christmas card-senders. If I'm not home for Christmas, then I get the
cards ready for mailing the next day. So if you receive a Christmas card from me shortly
after Christmas, it's not late. It's right on time!
I like the idea of Christmas starting instead of ending on December
25th. We usually don't celebrate our own birthdays until the day they occur or later. So
why do we, in effect, celebrate Jesus Christ's birthday (Nativity) so long in advance?
Christmas trees and outdoor decorations could still be put up ahead of time. However,
they don't have to be turned on until Christmas Eve. After all, no one would light the
candles on a birthday cake two months before the birthday party.
It doesn't take much effort to make these changes, but it does feel
weird at first. Yet it's not a matter of bucking the establishment. It's really all about
getting things back into perspective. And it just makes sense.
Our society has come a long way from St. Ephraim the Syrian's
statement about the significant twelve-day period between Christmas and Epiphany. However,
I question our ultimate destination. We seem to proclaim Christmas earlier and earlier as
time goes on.
September 11 was a wake up call to put our lives in America back on
track. I believe that means more than just becoming more patriotic. Everything Americans
do in life needs to be reevaluated and adjusted so it has the proper meaning and priority.
Focusing our celebration of Christmas after December 25th could help us do that.
The Twelve Days of Christmas became important to western Christians
many centuries ago. However, this period ultimately degenerated to become filled with
superstitions, fear, and other negative elements. The song," The Twelve Days of
Christmas," was used to teach spiritual truths, then it, too, degenerated, becoming a
cute folksong. From now on let's limit the pre-Christmas hustle and bustle. Let's use the
real "twelve days"-between Christmas and Epiphany-to pull away from the over
commercialization of Christ's Nativity. Let's start making the Twelve Days of Christmas
something special and joyful-a real celebration of Christ's birth-for us in America and
for our children. We will be glad we did.