Long before the Christian era, there were feasts and festivals to celebrate this time of the year. In ancient Rome, the custom of bringing evergreen boughs into the home represented the coming of spring. The exchanging of gifts, election of a mock king, wearing disguises and role reversals were common entertainment.
The Origin of the "Twelve Days of Christmas"
Although Christmas is celebrated on December 25, the actual date of the Nativity is unknown to scholars. By the early sixth century, the Christian emperor Justinian proclaimed Christmas a public holiday. There were eight days of feasting, which later became twelve days. King Alfred of England in the ninth century stated the holidays as "beginning with twelve days at Christmas." The festivities would have been held from December 25 to January 6.
By the thirteenth century, staging of the Nativity became popular. The celebration of Christmas prospered until the seventeenth century. The Puritan Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell abolished Christmas in England at this time. The holiday, however, would not be put aside. The celebration eventually returned with the Restoration but did not reach its zeal until the late eighteenth century.
The long twelve-day celebration would not last with the progress of mankind. The Industrial Revolution and expansion of the working schedule in the nineteenth century made the twelve-day celebration impossible to maintain.
Twelve Days of Christmas in Literature
The first time that "The Twelve Days of Christmas" appears in literature is in the children’s book "Mirth Without Mischief" published in 1780. The English version of the verse predates the 1780 publication. There is one version of the song in Scotland and three other versions in France. No matter the version, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is entertaining and has withstood the passage of time.
The Joy of Traditions
The many enjoyable traditions of Christmas celebrations do have their origins to a distant past. It’s always interesting to understand where these traditions came from to appreciate their message and meaning.