The twelve days of Christmas

The twelve days of Christmas are immortalised in Christmas carols, on Christmas cards and in Christmas stories. The tradition of the winter celebrations, however, goes back a long way to pagan times.

The winter solstice

Before Christianity arrived people viewed the winter solstice with dread. The life giving sun seemed to be fading away and one had to pray for it to be reborn around the 24th of December. In this longest night of the year, people believed that evil spirits roamed the earth and it was important to stay awake and protect ones home and animals. So people used to make a loud racket with whatever they had to hand and eventually this turned into fireworks. Curiously it is this tradition that has turned into our New Year’s Eve parties.


Christ’s birth date is not documented anywhere in the bible but was traditionally celebrated on January 6th, the Epiphany, until Pope Innocent XII moved it to the 24th to coincide with the pagan winter solstice. When the Gregorian calendar (today’s Western calendar) was introduced in 1582, the winter solstice moved to December 31st also known as the saint day of St Silvester.

The twelve days of Christmas

So there were three major festivals close together at this time of winter, Christ’s birth, the New Year and Epiphany. Thus began the 12 days of Christmas.

In most parts of Europe, schools are closed before Christmas and until somewhere around the 6th of January, in Catholic areas until after the 6th. Many offices are also closed for a good ten days around Christmas and the New Year. Shops open in between.

For some this is a period of reflection and renewal: a time to gather strength and make all those new year resolutions. For others it is time for retail therapy: spending money they don’t have on thing they don’t need. For others still it is a time to relax with family and friends, go skiing or read some of those books one got for Christmas.

Merry Christmas Everyone!