On the twelfth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Twelve drummers drumming
-Twelve Days of Christmas
We all know the song ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas.’ There was a time that each of those days were celebrated.
Today, I want to talk about what the twelve days of Christmas really were because I don’t feel like it is something that is as widely known about as it used to be, and I have been writing about for the last twelve days (when you include today). So, it seemed fitting to me to end the twelve days of Christmas series with explaining what exactly this is, although now that I think about it this might have been a better way to have started this series.
The twelve days of Christmas actually start on Christmas day, and after that they go until January 5th, the eve of Epiphany. Epiphany is when we celebrate the Wise Men coming to see Jesus.
For a lot of history it was on Christmas Eve that the tree and the house would be decorated for Christmas. You can see this custom in the beginning of ‘The Nutcracker’ as Clara and her brother try to watch through the keyhole to see their parents decorating the Christmas tree.
Once decorated it was customary to leave up the decorations until right after Epiphany.
During the twelve days of Christmas there was a lot of feasting, games, and merriment. It was not until the twelfth and final day that gifts would be exchanged.
The twelfth day was the big day of the celebration. There would be feasting, however this was one would be more rowdy.
The twelfth day would be one of turning everything upside down and inside out. Often the rich would serve the meal to the servants.
A king or queen of misfits would be crowned and they would preside over the festivities. The way that this person was chosen was that a hard bean would be cooked into a cake and when that cake was eaten whoever got that bean would be crowned king or queen.
Later it became customary to put two different small items into the cake one for men and one for women, and thus there would be a king and a queen of the revelry.
In a way the twelfth day, or rather night, of Christmas was in many ways like Saturnalia was the Romans. It was a day of foolishness and fun, of turning order upside down.
This can be seen in Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night which was originally written to be acted on the twelfth day of Christmas
There’s a quote from Twelfth Night, the play, that seems to sum up the idea of the twelfth day of Christmas quite well, ‘Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun; it shines everywhere.’