|Twelve Days of Christmas|
|Observances||Varies by denomination, culture, and nation|
|Date||25 December – 5 January, inclusive|
|Related to||Christmas Day, Christmastide, Twelfth Night, Epiphany, and Epiphanytide|
The Twelve Days of Christmas, also known as Twelvetide, is a festive Christian season celebrating the Nativity of Jesus. 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, the 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 Christmas.
In 567, the Council of Tours "proclaimed the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany as a sacred and festive season, and established the duty of Advent fasting in preparation for the feast." Christopher Hill, as well as William J. Federer, states that this was done in order to solve the "administrative problem for the Roman Empire as it tried to coordinate the solar Julian calendar with the lunar calendars of its provinces in the east."
In the Armenian Apostolic Church and Armenian Catholic Church celebrate the Birth and Baptism of Christ on the same day, so that there is no distinction between a feast of Christmas and a feast of Epiphany.
The Oriental Orthodox (other than the Armenians), the Eastern Orthodox, and the Eastern Catholics who follow the same traditions do have an interval of twelve days between the two feasts. Christmas and Epiphany are celebrated by these churces on 25 December and 7 January by the Julian calendar, corresponding to 7 January and 19 January of the Gregorian calendar.
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 of Bethlehem and the arrival of the Magi; the second day is referred to as the "Synaxis of 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 Protodeacon and 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).
The 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 of the 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 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 articles on Christmas and Christmas traditions.
26 December is "St. Stephen's Day", a feast day in the Western Church. In Great Britain and its former colonies, it is also the secular holiday of Boxing Day. In some parts of Ireland it is denominated "Wren Day".
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 on 1 January is an occasion for further secular festivities or for rest from the celebrations of the night before. In the 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 the 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 the 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 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
The Second 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 fast.
England in the Middle Ages
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 was chosen to lead the Christmas revels.
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 man.
Colonial North America
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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 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, 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
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 has encouraged an erroneous assumption that the Twelve Days end on Christmas Day and must therefore begin on 14 December.
Many American Christians still celebrate the traditional liturgical seasons of Advent and Christmas, especially Amish, Anglo-Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Mennonites, Methodists, Moravians, Nazarenes, 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 the 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 are deposed.
- 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 Middle Ages.
- Bratcher, Dennis (10 October 2014). "The Christmas Season". Christian Resource Institute. Retrieved 20 December 2014.
The Twelve Days of Christmas ... in most of the Western Church are the twelve days from 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].
- "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 celebrate the Christmas cycle in different ways. Practically all Protestants observe 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 January.
- Bl. Pope Paul VI, Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year, #33 (14 February 1969)
- Fr. Francis X. Weiser. "Feast of the Nativity". Catholic Culture.
The Council of Tours (567) proclaimed the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany as a sacred and festive season, and established the duty of Advent fasting in preparation for the feast. The Council of Braga (563) forbade fasting on Christmas Day.
- Fox, Adam (19 December 2003). "'Tis the season". The Guardian. Retrieved 25 December 2014.
Around the year 400 the feasts of St Stephen, John the Evangelist and the Holy Innocents were added on succeeding days, and in 567 the Council of Tours ratified the enduring 12-day cycle between the nativity and the epiphany.
- Hynes, Mary Ellen (1993). Companion to the Calendar. Liturgy Training Publications. p. 8. ISBN 9781568540115.
In the year 567 the church council of Tours called the 13 days between December 25 and January 6 a festival season.
- Martindale, Cyril Charles (1908). "Christmas". The Catholic Encyclopedia. New Advent. Retrieved 15 December 2014.
The Second Council of Tours (can. xi, xvii) proclaims, in 566 or 567, the sanctity of the "twelve days" from Christmas to Epiphany, and the duty of Advent fast; …and that of Braga (563) forbids fasting on Christmas Day. Popular merry-making, however, so increased that the "Laws of King Cnut", fabricated c. 1110, order a fast from Christmas to Epiphany.
- Bunson, Matthew (21 October 2007). "Origins of Christmas and Easter holidays". Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN). Retrieved 17 December 2014.
The Council of Tours (567) decreed the 12 days from Christmas to Epiphany to be sacred and especially joyous, thus setting the stage for the celebration of the Lord’s birth...
- Hill, Christopher (2003). Holidays and Holy Nights: Celebrating Twelve Seasonal Festivals of the Christian Year. Quest Books. p. 91. ISBN 9780835608107.
This arrangement became an administrative problem for the Roman Empire as it tried to coordinate the solar Julian calendar with the lunar calendars of its provinces in the east. While the Romans could roughly match the months in the two systems, the four cardinal points of the solar year--the two equinoxes and solstices--still fell on different dates. By the time of the first century, the calendar date of the winter solstice in Egypt and Palestine was eleven to twelve days later than the date in Rome. As a result the Incarnation came to be celebrated on different days in different parts of the Empire. The Western Church, in its desire to be universal, eventually took them both--one became Christmas, one Epiphany--with a resulting twelve days in between. Over time this hiatus became invested with specific Christian meaning. The Church gradually filled these days with saints, some connected to the birth narratives in Gospels (Holy Innocents' Day, December 28, in honor of the infants slaughtered by Herod; St. John the Evangelist, "the Beloved," December 27; St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, December 26; the Holy Family, December 31; the Virgin Mary, January 1). In 567, the Council of Tours declared the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany to become one unified festal cycle.
- Federer, William J. (6 January 2014). "On the 12th Day of Christmas". American Minute. Retrieved 25 December 2014.
In 567 AD, the Council of Tours ended a dispute. Western Europe celebrated Christmas, December 25, as the holiest day of the season... but Eastern Europe celebrated Epiphany, January 6, recalling the Wise Men's visit and Jesus' baptism. It could not be decided which day was holier, so the Council made all 12 days from December 25 to January 6 "holy days" or "holidays," These became known as "The Twelve Days of Christmas."
- Kirk Cameron, William Federer (6 November 2014). Praise the Lord. Trinity Broadcasting Network. Event occurs at 01:15:14. Retrieved 25 December 2014.
Western Europe celebrated Christmas December 25 as the holiest day. Eastern Europe celebrated January 6 the Epiphany, the visit of the Wise Men, as the holiest day... and so they had this council and they decided to make all twelve days from December 25 to January 6 the Twelve Days of Christmas.
- Kelly, Joseph F (2010). Joseph F. Kelly, The Feast of Christmas (Liturgical Press 2010 ISBN 978-0-81463932-0). ISBN 9780814639320.
- 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 Christmas and 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 God's favour.")
- 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: Macmillan. ISBN 1-58734-083-6. Bartleby.com
- Count, Earl (1997). 4,000 Years of Christmas. Ulysses Press. ISBN 1-56975-087-4.
- 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 whether 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 20th century.
- "Epiphany in United Kingdom". timeanddate.com. Retrieved 31 December 2016.
- 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 holiday.
- 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 Culture.
- 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. OCLC 57044650.
- Wells, Robin Headlam (2005). Shakespeare's Humanism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-82438-5. OCLC 62132881.
- Hoh, John L., Jr. (2001). The Twelve Days of Christmas: A Carol Catechism. Vancouver: Suite 101 eBooks.
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