Counting the Twelve Days of Christmas

By , December 25, 2009

Every Christmas brings up the old question: how do you count the twelve days of Christmas? The days between Christmas and Epiphany or Twelfth Night don’t quite add up. Obviously, Twelfth Night must be Christmas day number twelve, so something’s wrong.

The count never comes out right unless you look at it from an older mindset.

The key is not to count Christmas Day itself. This is counter-intuitive, but apparently, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. The key seems to be that Christmas day is too holy to be numbered, so it exists in and of itself. Any additional days tacked on to it are special, but not as special as Christmas, and can be safely numbered. This probably made sense in a medieval mind set, one used to intercalary days (extra days to make the calendar work—Leap Day every four years in February is the only intercalary day we have left). The old Christmas festival, focused chiefly on the twelve days of Christmas plus Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, was a kind of “time out of time,” a break from the back-breaking existence most people lived, one that barely spared time for church on Sundays.

Once Christmas Day is taken out of the equation, everything falls into place. Most, but not all of the twelve days of Christmas have their own minor observances or festivals:

Day 1. December 26, St. Stephens Day (“the Feast of Stephen” in the song Good King Wenceslas) also Boxing Day if it falls on a workday.

Day 2. Dec. 27, St. John’s Day, and Mother Night

Day 3. Dec. 28, Holy Innocents Day, Childermass, observing Herod’s massacre of the children in hopes of killing the Christ child sought by the Wise Men.

Day 4. Dec. 29, Feast of Fools, a day of reversed roles, and upside down societal rules.

Day 5. Dec. 30, no associated festival.

Day 6. Dec. 31, Hogmanay, New Year’s Eve

Day 7. January 1, New Year’s Day

Day 8. Jan. 2, no associated festival.

Day 9. Jan. 3, no associated festival.

Day 10. Jan. 4, no associated festival.

Day 11. Jan. 5, Eve of Epiphany, Festival of the Three Kings.

Day 12. Jan. 6, Epiphany, Twelfth Night.

Many people talk about “post Christmas letdown” or post holiday blues. Our family avoids this feeling by extending the Christmas celebration through Twelfth Night. On the last day we pack up the Christmas ornaments and decorations, and usually rearrange the house for everyday living. Going a few days past New Year’s Day, which is the common end of the holidays, avoids snapping out of the holidays and returning to “normal” life on the day after the big New Year’s Eve celebration. I used to dread January, which I saw as the icy front porch of winter for this reason. Besides, what worse way to begin a new year than by allowing the holiday season to crash to a close on the first day?

Note: This post was written and pre-scheduled to post today. Christmas Day is not the time to be posting on the blog. Our family is celebrating!

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