In Depth

What are the 12 days of Christmas?

The song has become a Christmas classic - but here is what the days actually represent

The Twelve Days of Christmas, also known as Twelvetide or Christmastide, is one of the festive season’s most recognisable carols. 

The poem wasn’t set to music until Frederic Austin paired it with the now-famous tune he composed in the early 20th Century, but the text itself may date back further than the 1700s, according to The Smithsonian.

The true origins of the poem are unknown, but it has been carried through several centuries now by Christians and Christmas-celebrators, and will likely be for several more. 

After hundreds of years, many people still don’t know what happens on which day - and even fewer know what partridges, pipers and french hens symbolise.  So, to change that, here are what the 12 days represent in Christianity - in order!

First day

“On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree.”

So go the lyrics to the famous Christmas song, but in Twelvetide, the first day of Christmas represents the birth of Jesus Christ, in a barn in Bethlehem.

The site of Jesus’s birth is now marked by the Church of the Nativity. The guardianship of the church is shared by three Christian denominations: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian.

Second day

The second day of Christmas is known as Boxing Day to most people, and in the song sees the delivery of two turtle doves, but it is also known as St Stephen’s Day in countries outside the UK.

It is the day of the first Christian martyr, St Stephen, who according to the Bible was an early-Christian deacon in a church in Jerusalem. He was stoned to death after being accused of blasphemy.

Third day

The third day of Christmas - three French hens in the song - celebrates St John the Apostle, who wrote the Book of Revelation.

St John was one of Jesus’s 12 disciples and was, according to the biblical account, the only one to die of natural causes. Most Christian denominations have held that St John is the author of several books of the New Testament.

Fourth day

Day four is four calling birds in the song, but also celebrates the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the day when people remember all the babies who were killed by King Herod in his search to kill the young Jesus.

In the Bible, Herod’s soothsayers tell him of the birth of a new King of the Jews. In order to head off losing his throne, Herod ordered the massacre of newborn babies of Bethlehem.

An angel, Magi, appeared to Joseph in a dream warning him of the massacre and telling him to flee to Egypt with Mary and their baby, in a story recounted as the “Flight into Egypt”.

Fifth day

The fifth day of Christmas - five gold rings - remembers St Thomas Becket, the 12th-century Archbishop of Canterbury who was killed on 29 December, 1170, after challenging the King Henry VIII’s authority over the church.

Sixth day

Day six remembers St Egwin of Worcester. Egwin was a Benedictine monk and, later, the third Bishop of Worcester. He died on 30 December, 717, and was known as the protector of orphans and the widowed. He shares the day with six geese a-laying.

Seventh day

Day seven of Christmas, seven swans a-swimming, falls on New Year’s Eve and celebrates Pope Sylvester I. Pope Sylvester is regarded as the 33rd Pope of the Catholic Church and was the bishop of Rome from 314 until his death in 335.

Little is known about him, however legend has it that he once slayed a dragon, meaning that he is often depicted alongside the beast. In some eastern European countries New Year’s Eve is still known as Silvester.

Eighth day

The eighth day of Christmas - eight maids a-milking - is New Year’s Day and in Catholicism celebrates Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary is celebrated as she is considered the “Mother of Christianity”.  

In Anglicanism, the day marks the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. The reason for this slightly strange sounding celebration is that the circumcision of Jesus has traditionally been seen as the first time the blood of Christ was shed.

Ninth day

The ninth day honours St Basil the Great and St Gregory Nazianzen, two important fourth-century Christians who share the day with nine ladies dancing in the carol.

Tenth day

The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is marked on the tenth day of Christmas and celebrates the day Jesus was named in the Jewish Temple. That is not linked at all to the ten lords a-leaping we know and love.

The celebration is held on 3 January and commemorates a day described in the Gospel of Luke as the day Jesus was named “the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb”.

Eleventh day

The 11th day, with its 11 pipers piping, celebrates the Feast of St Simeon Stylites, who spent 37 years living on a small platform on top of a pillar in modern-day Aleppo. 

Twelfth day 

The 12th and final day of Christmas, 5 January, is also known as Epiphany Eve – it’s the day before 6 January, which is known as the Epiphany.

Epiphany celebrates the visit to Bethlehem of the three wise men, who were not accompanied by 12 drummers drumming as that would have definitely woken up the baby Jesus.

Why do we take the Christmas tree down on the 12th day?

Christmas trees are customarily taken down on either the 5th or 6th of January, which marks the 12th night of Christmas. The Church of England goes with the former, but many other major denominations opt for the extra day. 

In some strains of Christianity, this is a festival that celebrates the coming of the Epiphany: when the three kings from the nativity story paid a visit to Jesus. 

In times gone by, people believed that when they brought greenery in to decorate their houses, tree-spirits came along with them, looking for shelter in the winter. The superstitious said that unless the spirits were released promptly after Christmas, crop and food shortages would surely follow.

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