The Twelve Days of Christmas

Is it my fault that the first eight days is basically thirty birds?
– Andy Bernard, The Office

We know the twelve days of Christmas like the back of our hand: turtle-doves and geese, milkmaids and lords, pipers and drummers and a pear tree. It’s a song we sing as Christmas approaches and, like all other Christmas songs, we are absolutely ready to stop singing it by the time we get to December 25.

Title page from the first known publication of “The 12 days of Christmas” in 1780.

This may come as a surprise to some of us: English-speaking people having been singing this song for centuries but we only started singing it before Christmas very recently! The First Day of Christmas is Christmas Day. It’s a song about the days passing from December 25 through to January 5.

This twelve day period, comprising Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Day, the most important cricket matches and the most popular holiday time for Australian workers, this twelve day period is Christmas.

I’m not exactly sure when contemporary western society decided to change the Twelve Days of Christmas into the twelve days leading up to Christmas. My suspicion is it has a lot to do with the way that our retail sector depends on mad-shopping-rushes and the urgency of buying Christmas gifts at premium prices. It doesn’t do retailers much good if Christmas celebrations are dragged out over almost a fortnight after Christmas Day – we could wait to buy all our gifts in the Boxing Day sales! This year we are going to try and celebrate Christmas the old fashioned way – slowly, calmly and drawn out over two weeks. We are going to take a whole twelve days to reflect on the mystery and glory of Jesus’ incarnation; we are going to spend a whole twelve days celebrating his salvation.

The Days of the Twelve Days of Christmas

We know what Christmas Day is about, but there are other special days in the Twelve Days of Christmas that help us understand the Christmas story and its implications. Rather than birds, rings and lords-a-leaping, they tell the story of Jesus and the people who follow him as Lord.

On the Second Day of Christmas (Boxing Day) we celebrate St Stephen, the first martyr. We remember the cost of following this child, the Lord of the cosmos who was persecuted right from the beginning. We sing the story of King Wenceslas and his page, who sacrificed their comfort for the sake of others. We pray for people suffering death for the sake of Christ.

On the Fourth Day of Christmas (December 28) we remember the Holy Innocents, the infants and toddlers of Bethlehem murdered by King Herod in his attempt to kill Jesus. We sing the Coventry Carol. We pray in confusion as we watch innocent suffering continue into the present day. We pray with all our might for Jesus to come back.

‘The Massacre of the Innocents’, Pieter Bruegel 1565

On the Eighth Day of Christmas (New Years Day) we celebrate the day that Jesus was named and circumcised – the true and faithful Israelite who kept God’s law, renewed God’s people and gathers Gentiles from the end of the earth.


My sister Georgia poses with a life-size Befana doll on Epiphany, 2001.

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas (January 5) is Twelfth Night. It’s the last day of Christmas. In England it’s a night of merrymaking and practical jokes. In Italy parents prepare gifts for ‘Befana‘ to give to their children. We watch Shakespeare’s play. We celebrate the incarnation with feasting.

It ends with Epiphany (January 6), the day we celebrate the revelation of Jesus’ identity as the Christ: to the wise men who came to worship him; to John at his baptism; and to us. Merry Christmas!

Celebrate for Twelve Days with us

The Christmas Project is about celebrating Christmas for twelve whole days into Epiphany. Keep the tree up, keep the lights on, keep celebrating! We are really excited about the idea that this year we won’t be cramming all of our Christmas celebration into one or two mad days, running from party to party. We’re looking forward to following up the mania of Christmas Day with leisurely Christmas catch ups into January with friends and family. We’re looking forward to some time and space to meditate on scripture and turn to God in prayer. We hope that you might take up this opportunity too. Make the most of all Twelve Days of Christmas. Celebrate with true joy and freedom!

From Christmas Eve we’ll be publishing a new collection of resources every day to help you celebrate. We’ll share bible readings and prayers, music and poetry. We’ll share recipes to make for your friends and craft projects to make with your family. Follow the Christmas Project and share your own experiences of Christmas.

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