One of the most common misconceptions about the Twelve Days of Christmas is that it occurs before December 25. This period, also known as Christmastide or Twelvetide, actually refers to the days after Christmas that leads to the Feast of the Epiphany, which is January 6.
In most cultures, the countdown begins on the evening of Christmas and ends on January 5. In some traditions, the twelve days start on December 26 and conclude on the day of the Epiphany itself. The Twelfth Night is always observed on the night of January 5, while the Twelfth Day either comes before or after the Twelfth Night, depending on which tradition is followed.
During the middle ages in England, this period meant days of drinking and dancing. By the 16th century, some Scandinavian and European cultures associated the period with festivals that celebrate the end of the year and to drive away evil spirits in anticipation of the new year. These traditions are believed to have been adapted from pagan customs, including the Germanic Yuletide and Roman Saturnilia.
Christmas wreaths are hung on the front door of a home on the first day and remained there until they removed on the Twelfth Night or by Epiphany morning. Additionally, all decorations are taken down as it is considered bad luck to leave them up after Epiphany. In Elizabethan England, however, decorations are left until Candlemas or Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, which is February 2.
In the United States, the tradition of observing The Twelve Days of Christmas has been largely overlooked due to the rise in popularity of Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties, although there are still a few who find ways to celebrate the period. Some of them give away gifts everyday throughout the 12 days, while others light candles for each of the days.
The song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is one of the most well-known references to this period of the holiday season. First published in England in 1780, the popular Christmas carol enumerates a series of gifts for each of the twelve days of Christmas, with every gift grander than the last. In 1910, it was imported to the United States when Emily Brown of the Downer Teacher’s College in Milwaukee chanced upon the song in an English music store.
Another popular reference to the Twelve Days of Christmas is the comedy written by William Shakespeare, entitled “Twelfth Night.” The play is said to have been written as a way to close the Christmas season on the Twelfth Night and expounds on activities expected from the occasion.