THE HISTORY OF THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS
The Twelve Days of Christmas are the dozen days in the liturgical 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 Christmas Day. In Hispanic and Latin American culture, January 6th is observed as Three Kings Day, or simply the “Day of the Kings.”
Aren’t the Twelve Days of Christmas the days before Christmas, 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 Twelve Days of Christmas, the last of those is known as Twelfth Night. The Twelfth Night is the holiday which 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 performed 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 of the traditions were adapted from older pagan customs. Modern Neopaganism celebrates 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.
But wasn’t this 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:
At first glance, there is nothing in this song that is uniquely Catholic in belief compared to Protestant catechism. Any of the items in it could be embraced by Catholic and Protestant alike. It is true that Queen Elizabeth I‘s 1558 Act of Uniformity and Act of Supremacy truly did abolish what was called the “old worship,” and the open practice of Catholicism was forbidden by law. That is until 1829 when the English Parliament passed the Catholic Emancipation Act. That said, nothing in this song would have been taken as particularly Catholic or offensive to Anglican sensibilities.
Curiously, during the highly Puritan time of the Commonwealth between 1649 and 1660 under the Cromwell government, Christmas was not celebrated in England until the time of Charles II and the restoration of the English monarchy. In Colonial America, during Puritan times this prohibition was also observed.
Secondly, while there are differences between Anglican (Protestant Church of England) and Catholic belief, none of those show up in the “hidden meaning” of the song, with the possible exception of the number of sacraments — 7 for Catholics, 2 for Anglicans. But, the “7 swans a swimming” could be the 7 Gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12:8–10 acceptable to both Catholics and Protestants.
However, it may be possible that this song has been confused with another song called “A New Dial” (also known as “In Those Twelve Days”), which goes back to at least 1625 assigning religious meanings to each of the twelve days of Christmas though not for teaching a catechism. During those days there was a custom of singing songs called a “memory-and-forfeits performance” in which people added verses to a song cumulatively until the loser of the game forgot the first verses.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian