The 12 Days of Christmas?

When exactly are the 12 days of Christmas? Wait: 12 days? Aren’t you starting a little late? It’s true that there are only 5 days until Christmas. But hasn’t it ever seemed weird that we have the song “12 days of Christmas” that we sing all through December (at least), so for 24 days leading up to Christmas. And our chocolate Advent calendars start on December 1st as well. 24 is not 12. So does that mean the 12 days of Christmas are supposed to happen in the middle of December? Well, that’s certainly what happens nowadays.

But that’s not always what the 12 days of Christmas referred to. In the church calendar, the year starts four Sundays before Christmas. The month between the start of the church year and Christmas is called Advent. Advent calendars with the little windows and chocolates start on exactly December 1st rather than a Sunday, but the idea is similar. A time of reflection and anticipation before Christmas. Advent is not “Christmas” season, in the church calendar.

So when is Christmas season? It’s the 12 days between Christmas Day and Epiphany, January 6th. So Christmas season does not end on Christmas, it’s just getting started! And that’s where the 12 days of Christmas song gets its name. Gifts were exchanged in recognition of Epiphany, not necessarily Christmas. So the song is talking about all the gifts received during the church Christmas season of December 25th to January 6th.

It’s interesting to notice how we change the meanings of phrases like “Christmas season” over time, but there are still remnants of the old meaning in traditions. And by learning the history of the terms that sound a little out of place today, we can make sense of them.

So, to split the difference between the current and historical meanings of “the 12 days of Christmas”, I’ll be talking about a vaguely linguisticky Christmas topic for 12 days, the first part in the modern Christmas season, and the second half in the traditional church Christmas season.

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