History of the 12 Days of Christmas: They’re after Christmas?

Bill Petro
3 min readDec 7, 2021

The 12 Days of Christmas are the dozen days in the liturgical or ecclesiastical calendar of the Western Church between the celebration of the birth of the Christ Child (Christmas Day, December 25) and the coming of the Wise Men, or Magi, to visit at his house in Bethlehem (Epiphany, January 6).

The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates during Epiphany rather than the Western Christmas Day. January 6th is observed as Three Kings Day in Hispanic and Latin American culture, or simply the “Day of the Kings.”

Question: Aren’t the 12 Days of Christmas the days beforeChristmas when you shop for presents?

Answer: No, the four-week season before Christmas is called Advent, meaning “the coming” of Christ.

The dozen days following Christmas are the 12 Days of Christmas; the last is known as Twelfth Night. The Twelfth Night is the holiday that marks the twelfth night of the Christmas Season, the Eve of Epiphany.

During the Tudor period in England, the “Lord of Misrule” would run the festivities of Christmas, ending on this Twelfth Night. Shakespeare‘s play by the same name was intended to be presented as a Twelfth Night entertainment and was first performed during this time in 1602.

The festival was particularly popular during the Middle Ages, especially in England, where some traditions were adapted from older pagan customs. Modern Neopaganismcelebrates this time under the name of Midwinter or Yule. Yule or Yuletide, which, while it serves as an archaic term for Christmastide, hearkens back to earlier German and Norse traditions.

Question: But wasn’t the 12 Days of Christmas song used as a memory aid for catechism by Roman Catholics in England during the period 1558 until 1829, at which time Parliament finally emancipated Catholicism there, who were prohibited from ANY practice of their faith by law — private OR public — where each gift is a hidden meaning to the teachings of the faith?

Answer: This is unlikely for several reasons:

Bill Petro

Writer, technologist, historian. Former Silicon Valley tech exec. Author of fascinating articles on history, tech, pop culture, & travel. https://billpetro.com