Monday, 4 January 2010


“No party is any fun unless seasoned with folly.” - Desiderius Erasmus

You have all heard about the Twelve Days of Christmas, but many of you may not know what this actually signifies. Contrary to much popular belief, these are not the twelve days before Christmas (the days before Christmas are the days of Advent), but in most of the Western Churches are the twelve days from Christmas until the beginning of Epiphany, on January 6th. The 12 day count begins from December 25th until January 5th. In some traditions, the first day of Christmas begins on the evening of December 25th with the following day considered the First Day of Christmas (December 26th). In these traditions, the twelve days begin December 26 and include Epiphany on January 6.

The Christmas Carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” may be regarded as a nonsense children’s song, but its origins are religious and instructional:

The First Day – December 25: A Partridge in a Pear Tree
The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, whose birthday we celebrate on December 25, the first day of Christmas. In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge that feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings, recalling the expression of Christ’s sadness over the fate of Jerusalem: “Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered you under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but you would not have it so…’ (Luke 13:34)

The Second Day – December 26: Two Turtle Doves
The Old and New Testaments, which together bear witness to God's self-revelation in history and the creation of a people to tell the Story of God to the world.

The Third Day – December 27: Three French Hens
The Three Theological Virtues: 1. Faith, 2. Hope, and 3. Love (1 Corinthians 13:13)

The Fourth Day – December 28: Four Calling Birds
The Four Gospels: 1. Matthew, 2. Mark, 3. Luke, and 4. John, which proclaim the Good News of God's reconciliation of the world to Himself in Jesus Christ.

The Fifth Day – December 29: Five Gold Rings

The first Five Books of the Old Testament, known as the Torah or the Pentateuch: 1. Genesis, 2. Exodus, 3. Leviticus, 4. Numbers, and 5. Deuteronomy, which gives the history of humanity's sinful failure and God’s response of grace in the creation of a people to be a light to the world.

The Sixth Day – December 30: Six Geese A-laying
The six days of creation that confesses God as Creator and Sustainer of the world (Genesis 1).

The Seventh Day – December 31: Seven Swans A-swimming
The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: 1. Prophecy, 2. Ministry, 3. Teaching, 4. Exhortation, 5. Giving, 6. Leading, and 7. Compassion (Romans 12:6-8; cf. 1 Corinthians 12:8-11)

The Eighth Day – January 1: Eight Maids A-milking
The eight Beatitudes: 1. Blessed are the poor in spirit, 2. Blessed are those who mourn, 3. Blessed are the meek, 4. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, 5. Blessed are the merciful, 6. Blessed are the pure in heart, 7. Blessed are the peacemakers, 8. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. (Matthew 5:3-10)

The Ninth Day – January 2: Nine Ladies Dancing
The nine Fruit of the Holy Spirit: 1. Love, 2. Joy, 3. Peace, 4. Patience, 5. Kindness, 6. Generosity, 7. Faithfulness, 8. Gentleness, and 9. Self-control. (Galatians 5:22)

The Tenth Day – January 3: Ten Lords A-leaping
The ten commandments: 1. You shall have no other gods before me; 2. Do not make an idol; 3. Do not take God's name in vain; 4. Remember the Sabbath Day; 5. Honour your father and mother; 6. Do not murder; 7. Do not commit adultery; 8. Do not steal; 9. Do not bear false witness; 10. Do not covet. (Exodus 20:1-17)

The Eleventh Day – January 4: Eleven Pipers Piping
The eleven Faithful Apostles: 1. Simon Peter, 2. Andrew, 3. James, 4. John, 5. Philip, 6. Bartholomew, 7. Matthew, 8. Thomas, 9. James bar Alphaeus, 10. Simon the Zealot, 11. Judas bar James. (Luke 6:14-16). The list does not include the twelfth disciple, Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus to the religious leaders and the Romans.

The Twelfth Day – January 5: Twelve Drummers Drumming
The twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles’ Creed: 1. I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. 2. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. 3/ He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. 4. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. 5. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. 6. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. 7. I believe in the Holy Spirit, 8. the holy catholic Church, 9. the communion of saints, 10. the forgiveness of sins, 11. the resurrection of the body, 12. and life everlasting.

Tonight is the Twelfth Night, and tradition has it that Christmas celebrations are to end today and decorations must be taken down on this day.  However, a sprig of holly should be retained in the house to protect the occupants against lightning.  Twelfth Night celebrations were once very popular and traditionally, this night was one of the merriest in the Christmas season.  Twelfth Night parties were held everywhere, ostensibly to celebrate the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem, however, many of the traditions surrounding the Night’s celebrations were pagan in origin (see Shakespeare’s play: “Twelfth Night”).

A Twelfth Night cake was baked for the occasion of the celebrations and a single bean was hidden in it.  The person who found it in his piece became the Bean King for the Night.  This tradition hails back to the Roman Saturnalia where a King was chosen by lot.  The bean was a sacred seed in ancient times. A pea was sometimes baked in a second cake in order to choose a Twelfth Night Queen, also.  These cakes have now merged with the tradition of the Christmas Cake and the Christmas Pudding (the latter which may contain the silver sixpence to determine the lucky one amongst its consumers: Compare this with the Vasilopitta [see my blog on January 1st]).

At the Twelfth Night party, it was customary to draw cards, on which were represented certain stock pantomime-like characters, exemplifying humorous national traits, for example, Farmer Mangelwurzel, François Parlez-Vous and Patrick O’Tater.  People had to act out the part of their chosen character and also submit to the humorous “commands” of the Bean King. Whenever the king raised his glass, the others did the same, shouting out “The king drinks!” Guessing games, riddle-solving, fortune telling, play-acting and miming were some of the things to amuse the party guests. Much laughter, good humour, fine food and drink were expended on these occasions.

In Jan Steen's 1668 painting of the Twelfth Night above, men, women and children form a cheerful crowd around the dining table, some in the fashionable middle-class dress of the day, while some are wearing different household utensils on their heads. Wearing the king's crown is a boy who stands on a small table, being helped to drain his glass by an elderly woman beside him. The jester, identified by the inscribed scrap of paper in his cap, is on his feet in front of the table, providing a rhythmical accompaniment with an earthenware pot and a small stick. On the far left, an older man with a metal funnel on his head has made a fiddle and bow from a ladle and a roasting spit, while someone else at the back is playing a real violin. On the opposite side, clearly keeping their distance, is a more genteel group gathered around a preacher and taking no part in the merriment. The painter and his wife, however, have joined in the disorderly celebration, being seated at table in the middle of the painting.


  1. As you say, Nicholas, I had no idea about the significance of the Twelve Days of Christmas carol. It all makes sense now!
    Interesting information about Twelfth Night!

  2. How interesting to learn about this Christmas carol and what it's real meaning is!!!!

    Next year I think I'll organize a twelfth night party.