What Are The 12 Days of Christmas? And Where Does That Tradition Come From?

By | December 9, 2020

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The Adoration of the Magi. Fresco in the Lower Church of the Basillica of San Francesco d'Assisi in Assisi, Italy.

You've likely heard the popular Christmas song, with music penned by Frederic Austin, and the lyrics dating back to 1780, "The 12 Days of Christmas," and the lovely, yet mildly-irritating nature of the jaunty holiday tune. Its Christian roots are its namesake because it's a Christmas song, but most people don't know the exact tradition of the 12 days of Christmas these days, so we're going to clear that right up, so you can bring this up at Christmas dinner instead of making small talk with the wrong aunt.

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The Adoration of the Magi. Fresco in the Lower Church of the Basillica of San Francesco d'Assisi in Assisi, Italy. Wikimedia Commons

The song uses an older Christian tradition as its base, but not as its subject matter. The Christian lore behind the twelve days of Christmas really varies by region, and even the days differ depending on where it's being celebrated. "Technically," the 12 Days of Christmas start on Christmas Day itself (but in some places, the day after Christmas), and end on January 6th, when the feast of epiphany happens (the twelfth night). According to Christian theology, the 12 days of Christmas are the days that mark the birth of Christ up to the point where the three wise men show up. So, technically, Christmas lasts all the way up until January 6th, meaning that you have more time to leave your decorations up and not worry about taking them down while living in a off-putting half-holiday limbo for an additional sweet, sweet week. 

The four weeks before Christmas are called "Advent," (see: Advent Calendars) which starts four Sundays before Christmas.

Some people celebrate the 12 days of Christmas by observing Saints' feast days and doing something Christmas-related every single day, but increasingly around the world, the festivities end the day after Christmas. 

"The 12 Days of Christmas" (The Song)And then, of course, there's the classic Christmas song "The Twelve Days of Christmas," which is a "cumulative song," where the verses build on top of each other, kind of like "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall," but family-friendly. You've undoubtedly heard it ad nauseam throughout your life, but the melody isn't as "age-old" as you'd think. The tune that we currently attribute to "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is actually from a 1909 arrangement by English composer Frederic Austin. The original version of the lyrics was part of a children's book from 1780 called "Mirth With-out Mischief." The book contained a memorization game meant to be played on the twelfth night. In northern England, the song was called the "Ten Days of Christmas," where the lyrics get more and more complicated and alliterative as it goes on, making the game harder than usual, and ostensibly, more fun. Like many traditions, it changes almost completely sometimes with geography. The French sing completely different lyrics, Scotland has their own version, and the Faroe Islands have a similar Christmas memory game as well. That version, interestingly, hadn't yet evolved to have every phrase start with the word "on." The 1909 version is actually the one that introduced the "on," bringing the world the rhyme in its currently popular form. 

Contrary to popular belief, the song itself doesn't have any Christian symbolism in it, which was proved by Snopes, which is pretty much as thorough as the internet gets. This is a common misnomer likely because "Ring Around The Rosie" has dark origins, which is a fun fact that makes the rounds socially, and people tend to attribute meaning to where there is none quite easily when they feel like they have insight on how "things work." This is how we get so many variations of such old traditions.