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The Twelve Days of Christmas, and the associated evenings of those twelve days (Twelve-tide), are the festive days beginning on Christmas Day (December 25) and ending on the evening of the Twelfth Day of Christmas (January 5). Thus, the first night of Christmas is December 25–26 and Twelfth Night is January 5-6. This period is also known as Christmastide. The day after Twelfth Night is Epiphany on January 6.

Over the centuries, differing churches and sects of Christianity have changed the actual traditions, time frame and their interpretations. St. Stephen's Day (or Boxing Day), for example, is December 26 in the Western Church and December 27 in the Eastern Church. Boxing Day, the first weekday after Christmas, is observed as a legal holiday in parts of the Commonwealth of Nations and was traditionally marked by the giving of Christmas boxes to service workers (such as postal workers and trades people) in the United Kingdom; December 28 is Childermas or the Feast of the Innocents. Currently, the 12 days and nights are celebrated in widely varying ways around the world. For example, some give gifts only on Christmas Night, some only on Twelfth Night and some each of the 12 nights.

Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, this period was one of continuous feasting and merrymaking, which climaxed on Twelfth Night, the traditional end of the Christmas season. Twelfth Night itself was forever solidified in popular culture when William Shakespeare used it as setting for one of his most famous stage plays, titled Twelfth Night. Often a Lord of Misrule was chosen to lead the Christmas revels.

Some of these traditions were adapted from the older pagan customs, including the Roman Saturnalia. Some also have an echo in modern day pantomime where traditionally authority is mocked and the principal male lead is played by a woman, while the leading older female character, or 'Dame', is played by a man.

Colonial America

The original American colonists brought their version of the Twelve Days over from Englandmarker, and adapted them to their new country, adding their own variations over the years. For example, it is believed by many that the modern day Christmas wreath originated with these colonials. A homemade wreath would be fashioned from local greenery and if fruits were available, they were added. Making the wreaths was one of the traditions of Christmas Eve, then they would be hung on each home's front door beginning on Christmas Night (1st night of Christmas) through Twelfth Night or Epiphany morning. As was already the tradition in their native England, all decorations would be taken down by Epiphany morning and the remainder of the edibles would be consumed. A special cake was also baked then for Epiphany (which some now call the king cake).

Modern United States

With the onset of more Americanized and secular traditions throughout the past two centuries (such as the American "Santa Claus", popularity of Christmas Eve itself as a holiday, and rise in popularity of New Year's Eve parties as well), the traditions of the Twelve Days of Christmas have been largely forgotten in the U.S. This is also heightened by the commercial practice to have "After-Christmas Sales" begin on December 26 and run usually until New Year's Eve. Indeed, contemporary marketing and media tend to espouse the (erroneous) belief that the Twelve Days end on Christmas and thus begin December 14.

However, a small percentage of Christians of many sects have held on to their own favorite ways to celebrate and those who choose to also have their own church to guide them in a spiritual way of marking this reverent holiday. Americans who celebrate various ways include secular Christians of all backgrounds, religious Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Moravians and those of the Amish and Mennonite communities.

Today, some celebrants give gifts each of the Twelve Days, feast and otherwise celebrate the entire time through to Epiphany morning. Lighting a candle for each day has become a modern tradition in the U.S. and of course, singing the appropriate verses of the famous song each day is also an important and fun part of the American celebrations.

Some still celebrate Twelfth Night as the biggest night for parties and gift-giving and some also light a Yule Log on the first night (Christmas) and let it burn some each of the twelve nights. Some Americans also have their own traditional foods to serve each night.

As in olden days, Twelfth Night to Epiphany morning is then the traditional time to take down the Christmas tree and decorations.

Modern celebrations in the United Kingdom

Many in the United Kingdommarker and other Commonwealth nations still celebrate some aspects of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Boxing Day (26 December) is a national holiday in many Commonwealth nations, being the first full day of Christmas. Victorian era stories by Charles Dickens (and others), particularly A Christmas Carol, hold key elements of the celebrations such as the consumption of plum pudding, roasted goose and wassail. While these foods are consumed more at the beginning of the Twelve Days in the UK, some dine and dance in the traditional way throughout, all the way to Twelfth Night. Some use William Shakespeare's play by that same name (written around 1601) as an inspiration.

Traditionally, the Twelfth Day is the last day for decorations to be taken down. It is seen by many to be bad luck to take decorations down after this date.

Footnotes

References

  • Primarily subhead Popular Merrymaking under Liturgy and Custom.



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