On the first day of Christmas… you know the song, but what on earth does it mean? One question leads to another and before you know it, we’ve found a much more interesting story that predates the song by about twelve centuries. From December 25 to January 6, early Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus all the way through to the Epiphany, the moment his identity as the Christ Child was declared by the Three Wise Men, with twelve days of feasting and revelry. Why twelve days? That’s apparently the time it would have taken for the Magi to reach Bethlehem following that bright star shining in the east. The tradition continues today and we’re very much about it at Root & Vine. After all, Christmas comes but once a year, and we don’t know about you, but we could certainly use a few extra days to celebrate.
How We Got Our Twelve Days
Before early church leaders in Rome decided on a date to celebrate Christ’s birth, the most important Christian holidays were the Epiphany and Easter. Epiphany is the Greek word for “revelation,” and the revelation was a mighty one indeed, one that would change the future of humankind for all eternity. The calendar we follow today is even marked by this “epiphany,” BC, before Christ, and AD taken from the Latin phrase, “anno Domini nostri Jesu Christi,” which translates to “in the year of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Though the exact date that Christ was born remains disputed, by the third century, the Roman church determined his birth would be celebrated December 25. The first mention of the holiday in a calendar was in 336 AD. Why the 25th? It fit well within the culture of the day, offering new believers a replacement for the popular pagan celebration of winter solstice. The twelve day span is reminiscent of other ancient European holidays like Yule, that helped people make it through the long cold winter nights.
“Ancient Christians found a happy coincidence between these festivals that sought the sun’s return and the birth of the ‘Light of the world,’” writes Brian Cones in U.S. Catholic. “Pagan festivals became Christian festivals, with many traditions remaining intact. Yule logs and lighted trees, holding off the seemingly endless night, are examples of such adaptations.” As we find ourselves in the darkest nights of the year, and of the pandemic, we can embrace the twelve days of Christmas as an invitation to celebrate the light that is coming. We have crossed the solstice threshold. The days are getting longer, believe it or not. “Christ was born, Christ is risen, Christ will come again… “
Celebrating The Twelve Days of Christmas
To this day, there are myriad ways to celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas. Gifts are often given on January 6 in honor of the Epiphany, or “Dia de los Tres Reyes Magos” –Three Kings Day, as it is called in Latin America. Some cultures exchange gifts every day from December 25 to Epiphany. Even the timing of the Twelve Days varies depending on particular religious calendars. Eastern Orthodox Churches follow the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian one of Western churches, with their Twelve Days spanning January 7 – January 19. The Epiphany is celebrated as a single day in the Catholic church, but some Protestant churches consider it the beginning of a period extending until Ash Wednesday ushers in the season of Lent and then Easter.
In the Catholic church, each day corresponds with a different feast, often in honor of a saint.
Day 1 – December 25 – Christmas Day, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”
Day 2 – December 26 – St. Stephen’s Day, known for his service to the poor, he was stoned to death in AD 36, making him the first known Christian martyr. Also known as Boxing Day, and the day when ‘Good King Wenceslas’ carol takes place.
Day 3 – December 27 – St. John the Apostle, disciple of Jesus, writer of the Fourth Gospel.
Day 4 – December 28 – Feast of the Holy Innocents, in memoriam of the infants that King Herod ordered to be killed as he searched in fear for the Christ Child.
Day 5 – December 29 – St. Thomas Becket, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, was killed in the twelfth century for challenging King Henry II’s authority over the church.
Day 6 – December 30 – St. Egwin of Worcester, Benedictine monk known as a judicious protector of orphans and the widowed.
Day 7 – December 31 – New Year’s Eve, honoring Sylvester I, one of the earliest popes, serving in the 4th century. According to legend, Pope Sylvester converted the first Roman emperor Constantine to Christianity. To this day in many central and eastern European countries, New Year’s Eve is sometimes referred to as “Silvester.”
Day 8 – January 1 – New Year’s Day, a day of feasting dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Day 9 – January 2 – St. Gregory and St. Basil, two pivotal 4th century church leaders.
Day 10 – January 3 – Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, commemorating the day Jesus was officially “named” in the Jewish Temple. This occasion is celebrated on many different dates, depending on the church.
Day 11 – January 4 – Originally celebrating St. Simon Stylites who lived atop a small pillar for 37 years, this day is now dedicated to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American saint, who lived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Day 12 – January 5 – The Eve of the Epiphany, also known as Twelfth Night. It is traditional on this night to place figures of the Three Kings into the Nativity Scene to prepare for the celebration of Epiphany, January 6. In the UK, wassailers take to the streets singing carols and spreading cheers.
On the Twelfth Night…
Twelfth Night, which would become the name of a famous Shakespearean comedy from the early 17th century, was a big thing in England, dating back to medieval times when the celebration marked the end of winter. The wealthy would host grand parties, engaging in an ostentatious game of roleplaying where masters of the house would serve their servants. To kick off the festivities, the traditional Twelfth Night cake of butter, fruit, nuts and spices would be served. Whoever found the dried pea or bean that was baked into the cake, would be declared Lord or Lady of Misrule for evening, charged with leading the celebrations dressed like a King or Queen. These traditions go back to the celebrations of the Roman pagan holiday — Saturnalia — and eventually evolved into a more modern approach, with two tokens in the cake, one each for a more civilized King and Queen of the party.
This tradition eventually made it to America and exists today in the form of King Cake, the colorful, buttery concoction often eaten in the Southeastern United States to celebrate Epiphany, and the beginning of Carnival season. The King Cake token is in the form of a plastic baby and whoever finds it must host the next party or at least bring the cake. This keeps the festivities going all the way through Mardis Gras, ending on Ash Wednesday.
Twelfth Night Wassail
The word wassail comes from Anglo-Saxon “waes hael,” meaning to your health. There is no definitive recipe for the drink, as it has traditionally varied by region and what is seasonally available. What makes it real wassail is simply liquor and spice, served hot in a large wooden “wassail” bowl, often ringed by holly and ivy, or evergreen, and festive holiday ribbon. The alcohol and spices are heated in cider or ale, and often whole fruits bob in the heady punch. It’s infused with sweetness as the wassail is taken from house to house to be administered with songs and laughter.
Prep Time: 15 min + 45 cook time
Makes: 8 servings
- 8 cups apple cider
- 2 cups fresh squeezed orange juice,*
- 1/2 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
- 8 whole cinnamon sticks
- 12 whole cloves or 1 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 2 peeled and thinly sliced apples and/or thinly sliced oranges to float on top.
- OR take a few tangerines or oranges studded with cloves and drop them in the punch.
- Orange juice may be replaced with brandy for a more traditional wassail.