The Twelve Days of Christmas, also known as Twelvetide, is a festive
Christian season celebrating the
Nativity of Jesus
Nativity of Jesus Christ. In most
Western ecclesiastical traditions, "
Christmas Day" is considered the
"First Day of Christmas" and the Twelve Days are 25 December – 5
January, inclusive. For many Christian denominations; for example,
Anglican Communion and Lutheran Church, the Twelve Days are
identical to Christmastide, but for others, e.g., the Roman
Catholic Church, "Christmastide" lasts longer than the Twelve Days of
1 Eastern Christianity
1.1 Eastern Orthodoxy
2 Western Christianity
2.1 Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages
2.3 Colonial North America
3 Modern Western customs
3.1 United Kingdom and Commonwealth
3.2 United States of America
Armenian Apostolic Church
Armenian Apostolic Church and Armenian Catholic Church
celebrate the Birth and Baptism of Christ on the same day, they do
not have a series of twelve days between a feast of
Christmas and a
feast of Epiphany.
The Oriental Orthodox, other than the Armenians, the Eastern Orthodox,
Eastern Catholics who follow the same traditions do have the
interval of twelve days between the two feasts. If they use the Julian
Calendar, they celebrate
Christmas on what is for them 25 December,
but is 7 January of the Gregorian Calendar, and they celebrate
Epiphany on what is for them 6 January, but is 19 January of the
For the Eastern Orthodox, both
Christmas and Epiphany are among the
Twelve Great Feasts that are only second to
Easter in importance.
The period between
Christmas and Epiphany is fast-free. During this
period one celebration leads into another. The Nativity of Christ is a
three-day celebration: the formal title of the first day (i. e.
Christmas Eve) is "The Nativity According to the Flesh of our Lord,
God and Saviour
Jesus Christ", and celebrates not only the Nativity of
Jesus, but also the
Adoration of the Shepherds
Adoration of the Shepherds of
Bethlehem and the
arrival of the Magi; the second day is referred to as the "
the Theotokos", and commemorates the role of the
Virgin Mary in the
Incarnation; the third day is known as the "Third Day of the
Nativity", and is also the feast day of the
Protomartyr Saint Stephen. 29 December is the Orthodox Feast of the
Holy Innocents. The
Afterfeast of the Nativity (similar to the Western
octave) continues until 31 December (that day is known as the Apodosis
or "leave-taking" of the Nativity).
Russian icon of the Theophany.
Saturday following the Nativity is commemorated by special
readings from the
Epistle (1 Tim 6:11-16) and
Gospel (Matt 12:15-21)
during the Divine Liturgy. The
Sunday after the Nativity has its own
liturgical commemoration in honour of "The Righteous Ones: Joseph the
Betrothed, David the King and James the Brother of the Lord".
Another of the more prominent festivals that are included among the
Twelve Great Feasts is that of the Circumcision of Christ on 1
January. On this same day is the feast day of Saint Basil the
Great, and so the service celebrated on that day is the Divine Liturgy
of Saint Basil.
On 2 January begins the
Forefeast of the Theophany. The Eve of the
Theophany on 5 January is a day of strict fasting, on which the devout
will not eat anything until the first star is seen at night. This day
is known as
Paramony (Greek Παραμονή "Eve"), and follows the
same general outline as
Christmas Eve. That morning is the celebration
Royal Hours and then the
Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil combined
with Vespers, at the conclusion of which is celebrated the Great
Blessing of Waters, in commemoration of the
Baptism of Jesus
Baptism of Jesus in the
Jordan River. There are certain parallels between the hymns chanted on
Paramony and those of Good Friday, to show that, according to Orthodox
theology, the steps that
Jesus took into the
Jordan River were the
first steps on the way to the Cross. That night the
All-Night Vigil is
served for the Feast of the Theophany.
Within the Twelve Days of Christmas, there are celebrations both
secular and religious.
Christmas Day, if it is considered to be part of the Twelve Days of
Christmas and not as the day preceding the Twelve Days, is
celebrated by Christians as the liturgical feast of the Nativity of
the Lord. It is a public holiday in many nations, including some where
the majority of the population is not Christian. On this see the
26 December is "St. Stephen's Day", a feast day in the Western Church.
Great Britain and its former colonies, it is also the secular
holiday of Boxing Day. In some parts of Ireland it is denominated
New Year's Eve
New Year's Eve on 31 December is the feast of
Pope St. Sylvester I and
is known also as "Silvester". The transition that evening to the new
year is an occasion for secular festivities in many nations, and in
several languages is known as "St. Sylvester Night" ("Notte di San
Silvestro" in Italian, "Silvesternacht" in German, "
Réveillon de la
Saint-Sylvestre" in French, and "סילבסטר" in Hebrew).
New Year's Day
New Year's Day on 1 January is an occasion for further secular
festivities or for rest from the celebrations of the night before. In
Roman Rite of the Roman Catholic Church, it is the Solemnity of
Mary, Mother of God, liturgically celebrated on the Octave Day of
Christmas. It has also been celebrated, and still is in some
denominations, as the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, because
according to Jewish tradition He would have been circumcised on the
eighth day after His Birth, inclusively counting the first day and
last day. This day, or some day proximate to it, is also celebrated by
Pope and Roman Catholics as World Day of Peace.
In many nations, e. g., the United States, the Solemnity of Epiphany
is transferred to the first
Sunday after 1 January, which can occur as
early as 2 January. That solemnity, then, together with customary
observances associated with it, usually occur within the Twelve Days
of Christmas, even if these are considered to end on 5 January rather
than 6 January.
Other Roman Catholic liturgical feasts on the General Roman Calendar
that occur within the Octave of
Christmas and therefore also within
the Twelve Days of
Christmas are the Feast of St. Stephen,
Proto-Martyr on 26 December; Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist
on 27 December; the Feast of the
Holy Innocents on 28 December;
Memorial of St. Thomas Becket, Bishop and Martyr on 29 December; and
Feast of the Holy Family
Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph on the Sunday
within the Octave of
Christmas or, if there is no such Sunday, on 30
December. Outside the Octave, but within the Twelve Days of Christmas,
there are the feast of Sts.
Basil the Great
Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus
on 2 January and the Memorial of the Holy Name of
Jesus on 3 January.
Other saints are celebrated at a local level.
Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages
Council of Tours of 567 noted that, in the area for which
its bishops were responsible, the days between
Christmas and Epiphany
were, like the month of August, taken up entirely with saints' days.
Monks were therefore in principle not bound to fast on those days.
However, the first three days of the year were to be days of prayer
and penance so that faithful Christians would refrain from
participating in the idolatrous practices and debauchery associated
with the new year celebrations. The
Fourth Council of Toledo (633)
ordered a strict fast on those days, on the model of the Lenten
Twelfth Night (The King Drinks) by David Teniers c. 1634-1640
In England 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. In Tudor England, Twelfth
Night itself was forever solidified in popular culture when William
Shakespeare used it as the setting for one of his most famous stage
plays, titled Twelfth Night. Often a
Lord of Misrule
Lord of Misrule was chosen to
Some of these traditions were adapted from the older pagan customs,
including the Roman
Saturnalia and the Germanic Yuletide. 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
Colonial North America
This section needs additional citations for verification. Please help
improve this article by adding citations to reliable sources.
Unsourced material may be challenged and removed. (December 2016)
(Learn how and when to remove this template message)
The early North American colonists brought their version of the Twelve
Days over from England, and adapted them to their new country, adding
their own variations over the years. For example, the modern-day
Christmas wreath may have originated with these colonials. A
homemade wreath would be fashioned from local greenery and fruits, if
available, were added. Making the wreaths was one of the traditions of
Christmas Eve; they would remain hung on each home's front door
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, the king cake, was also baked then for Epiphany.
Modern Western customs
United Kingdom and Commonwealth
Many in the UK 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.
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. These foods are consumed more at
the beginning of the Twelve Days in the UK.
Twelfth Night is the last day for decorations to be taken down, and it
is held to be bad luck to leave decorations up after this. This is
in contrast to the custom in Elizabethan England, when decorations
were left up until Candlemas; this is still done in some other Western
European countries such as Germany.
United States of America
Twelfth Night costumers in New Orleans
In the United States,
Christmas Day is a holiday for Christians and
for some non-Christians.
The traditions of the Twelve Days of
Christmas have been nearly
forgotten in the United States. Contributing factors include the
popularity of the stories of
Charles Dickens in nineteenth-century
America, with their emphasis on generous giving; introduction of
secular traditions in the 19th and 20th centuries, e. g., the American
Santa Claus; and increase in the popularity of secular New Year's Eve
parties. Presently, the commercial practice treats the Solemnity of
Christmas, 25 December, the first day of Christmas, as the last day of
the "Christmas" marketing season, as the numerous "after-Christmas
sales" that commence on 26 December demonstrate. The commercial
calendar encourages the error that the Twelve Days of Christmas
Christmas Day and therefore begin on 14 December.
Many American Christians still celebrate the traditional liturgical
Advent and Christmas, especially Amish, Anglo-Catholics,
Episcopalians, Lutherans, Mennonites, Methodists, Moravians, Orthodox
Christians, Presbyterians, and Roman Catholics. In Anglicanism, the
designation of the "Twelve Days of Christmas" is used liturgically in
the Episcopal Church in the US, having its own invitatory antiphon in
Book of Common Prayer
Book of Common Prayer for Matins.
Christians who celebrate the Twelve Days may give gifts on each of
them, with each of the Twelve Days representing a wish for a
corresponding month of the new year. They may feast on traditional
foods and otherwise celebrate the entire time through the morning of
the Solemnity of Epiphany. Contemporary traditions include lighting a
candle for each day, singing the verse of the corresponding day from
the famous The Twelve Days of Christmas, and lighting a yule log on
Christmas Eve and letting it burn some more on each of the twelve
nights. For some, the
Twelfth Night remains the night of the most
festive parties and exchanges of gifts. Some households exchange gifts
on the first (25 December) and last (5 January) days of the Twelve
Days. As in former times, the
Twelfth Night to the morning of Epiphany
is the traditional time during which
Christmas trees and decorations
^ Hatch, Jane M. (1978). The American Book of Days. Wilson.
ISBN 9780824205935. January 5th:
Twelfth Night or Epiphany Eve.
Twelfth Night, the last evening of the traditional Twelve Days of
Christmas, has been observed with festive celebration ever since the
^ a b Bratcher, Dennis (10 October 2014). "The
Christian Resource Institute. Retrieved 20 December 2014. The Twelve
Christmas ... in most of the
Western Church are the twelve
Christmas until the beginning of Epiphany (January 6th; the
12 days count from December 25th until January 5th). In some
traditions, the first day of
Christmas begins on the evening of
December 25th with the following day considered the First Day of
Christmas (December 26th). In these traditions, the twelve days begin
December 26[th] and include Epiphany on January 6[th].
^ a b "The Book of Common Prayer" (PDF). New York: Church Publishing
Incorporated. January 2007. p. 43. Retrieved 24 December 2014. On
the Twelve Days of
Christmas Alleluia. Unto us a child is born: O
come, let us adore Him. Alleluia.
^ Truscott, Jeffrey A. Worship. Armour Publishing. p. 103.
ISBN 9789814305419. As with the
Easter cycle, churches today
Christmas cycle in different ways. Practically all
Christmas itself, with services on 25 December or
the evening before. Anglicans, Lutherans and other churches that use
the ecumenical Revised Common Lectionary will likely observe the four
Sundays of Advent, maintaining the ancient emphasis on the
eschatological (First Sunday), ascetic (Second and Third Sundays), and
scriptural/historical (Fourth Sunday). Besides
Christmas Eve/Day, they
will observe a 12-day season of
Christmas from 25 December to 5
Pope Paul VI, Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year, #33 (14
^ Kelly, Joseph F (2010). Joseph F. Kelly, The Feast of Christmas
(Liturgical Press 2010 ISBN 978-0-81463932-0).
^ a b c Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church
^ United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, "World Day of Peace"
^ Jean Hardouin; Philippe Labbé;
Gabriel Cossart (1714). "Christmas".
Acta Conciliorum et Epistolae Decretales (in Latin). Typographia
Regia, Paris. Retrieved 16 December 2014. De Decembri usque ad natale
Domini, omni die ieiunent. Et quia inter natale Domini et epiphania
omni die festivitates sunt, itemque prandebunt. Excipitur triduum
illud, quo ad calcandam gentilium consuetudinem, patres nostri
statuerunt privatas in Kalendariis Ianuarii fieri litanias, ut in
ecclesiis psallatur, et hora octava in ipsis Kalendis Circumcisionis
missa Deo propitio celebretur. (Translation: "In December until
Christmas, they are to fast each day. Since between
Epiphany there are feasts on each day, they shall have a full meal,
except during the three-day period on which, in order to tread Gentile
customs down, our fathers established that private litanies for the
Calends of January be chanted in the churches, and that on the Calends
itself Mass of the Circumcision be celebrated at the eighth hour for
^ Christopher Labadie, "The Octave Day of Christmas: Historical
Development and Modern Liturgical Practice" in Obsculta, vol. 7, issue
1, art. 8, p. 89
^ Adolf Adam, The Liturgical Year (Liturgical Press 1990
ISBN 978-0-81466047-8), p. 139
^ Frazer, James (1922). The Golden Bough. New York: McMillan.
ISBN 1-58734-083-6. Bartleby.com
^ Count, Earl (1997). 4,000 Years of Christmas. Ulysses Press.
^ New York Times, 27 December 1852: a report of holiday events
mentions 'a splendid wreath' as being among the prizes won.
^ In 1953 a correspondence in the letter pages of The Times discussed
Christmas wreaths were an alien importation or a version of
the native evergreen 'bunch'/'bough'/'garland'/'wassail bush'
traditionally displayed in England at Christmas. One correspondent
described those she had seen placed on doors in country districts as
either a plain bunch, a shape like a torque or open circle, and
occasionally a more elaborate shape like a bell or interlaced circles.
She felt the use of the words '
Christmas wreath' had 'funereal
associations' for English people who would prefer to describe it as a
'garland'. An advertisement in The Times of Friday, 26 December 1862;
pg. 1; Issue 24439; col A, however, refers to an entertainment at
Crystal Palace featuring 'Extraordinary decorations, wreaths of
evergreens ...', and in 1896 the special
Christmas edition of The
Girl's Own Paper was titled 'Our
Christmas Wreath':The Times Saturday,
19 December 1896; pg. 4; Issue 35078; col C. There is a custom of
decorating graves at
Christmas with somber wreaths of evergreen, which
is still observed in parts of England, and this may have militated
against the circle being the accepted shape for door decorations until
the re-establishment of the tradition from America in the mid-to-late
^ "Epiphany in United Kingdom". timeanddate.com. Retrieved
^ Sirvaitis, Karen (1 August 2010). The European American Experience.
Twenty-First Century Books. p. 52. ISBN 9780761340881.
Christmas is a major holiday for Christians, although some
non-Christians in the United States also mark the day as a
^ HumorMatters.com Twelve Days of
Christmas (reprint of a magazine
article). Retrieved 3 January 2011.
"Christmas". Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved 22 December 2005.
Primarily subhead Popular Merrymaking under
Liturgy and Custom.
"The Twelve Days of Christmas". Catholic Culture. Retrieved 22 January
2012. Primarily subhead 12 Days of
Christmas under Catholic and
Bowler, Gerald (2000). The World Encyclopedia of Christmas. Toronto:
M&S. ISBN 978-0-7710-1531-1. OCLC 44154451.
Caulkins, Mary; Jennie Miller Helderman (2002).
Christmas Trivia: 200
Fun & Fascinating Facts About Christmas. New York: Gramercy.
ISBN 978-0-517-22070-2. OCLC 49627774.
Collins, Ace; Clint Hansen (2003). Stories Behind the Great Traditions
of Christmas. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.
ISBN 978-0-310-24880-4. OCLC 52311813.
Evans, Martin Marix (2002). The Twelve Days of Christmas. White
Plains, New York: Peter Pauper Press. ISBN 978-0-88088-776-2.
Wells, Robin Headlam (2005). Shakespeare's Humanism. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-82438-5.
Hoh, John L., Jr. (2001). The Twelve Days of Christmas: A Carol
Catechism. Vancouver: Suite 101 eBooks.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Christmastide.
Look up Twelve Days of
Christmas in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Saint Nicholas Day
St. Stephen's Day
Adoration of the Magi
Adoration of the Shepherds
Annunciation to the shepherds
Baptism of the Lord
Herod the Great
Massacre of the Innocents
flight into Egypt
Nativity of Jesus
in later culture
Star of Bethlehem
Old Man Winter
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Tió de Nadal
Christmas gift-bringers by country
Boar's Head Feast
Carols by Candlelight
Cavalcade of Magi
Events and celebrations
Feast of the Seven Fishes
Google Santa Tracker
Lord of Misrule
Meals and feasts
Nine Lessons and Carols
NORAD Tracks Santa
Australia and New Zealand
Hit singles UK
Hit singles US
Carols for Choirs
The Oxford Book of Carols
The New Oxford Book of Carols
"Old Santeclaus with Much Delight"
"A Visit from St. Nicholas"
Black Friday (partying)
Black Friday (shopping)
Christmas Day (Trading) Act 2004
Puritan New England
American Civil War
Post-War United States
Running of the Santas
Santa's Candy Castle
Small Business Saturday
WWE Tribute to the Troops
bûche de Noël
Rosca de reyes