The Twelve Days of Christmas

A Partridge in a Pear Tree

A Partridge in a Pear Tree

On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me:
A Partridge in a Pear Tree

On the second day of Christmas my true love sent to me:
Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

By this point in the Christmas season, many of us have heard this song so much that we wish we could not hear it again until next year.  Never fear, this post is not about the song.  Today, we are going to look at celebration of the Twelve Days of Christmas, when they are, and a bit about the history of the observance.

The Twelve Days of Christmas, beginning on Christmas Day and ending on January 5, is the festive Christian season that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, as the Son of God.  This period is also known as Christmastide.  Unlike today, the period leading up to Christmas, called Advent in the Christian church, was not a period of parties and celebration.  Advent, typically beginning 4 Sundays before Christmas, is a season observed in many Western Christian churches as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for celebrating the Nativity of Jesus at Christmas.

From the 4th century the season was kept as a period of fasting as strict as in Lent.  In the Anglican and Lutheran churches this fasting rule was later relaxed.  The Roman Catholic Church later abolished the precept of fasting later, but kept Advent as a season of penitence.  In addition to fasting, dancing and similar festivities were forbidden in these traditions.  Some legends hold that the celebrations of the twelve days of Christmas began as a way to celebrate and let off some steam after the solemnity of the Advent season.  History however shows that this may only be a part of the reason.

History of Christmas Season Celebrations

It is not known exactly when the church began to celebrate Christmas.  The first written reference to Christmas is in 336 AD when the Roman Church began to celebrate a Feast of the Nativity on December 25th.  By observing Jesus’ birthday on that day, pagan traditions associated with the winter solstice—wassail bowls and the use of holly and other evergreens for decoration—came to be incorporated in the celebration.  The Christmas custom spread to England by the end of the 6th century and later reached Scandinavia where it became fused with the pagan Norse mid-winter feast season known as Yule.

During the reign of King Alfred, 871 to 899, the Christmas celebration was extended by 12 days, ending on Epiphany, January 6.  Early in the 11th century the term Christes maesse, or festival of Christ, entered the English language.  Though it bothered church officials, vestiges of pagan merriment remained a part of Christmas celebrations.  Some prayed that “the sacred would overtake profane as pagans gave up their revels and turned to Christianity.” (Coffin, 1973)  The pagan traditions stuck however and merry-making and feasting remained the most popular ways to celebrate Christmas in England.

The annual indulgence in eating, dancing, singing, sporting, card playing, and gambling escalated to magnificent proportions.  By the seventeenth century, under the reigns of Tudors and Stuarts, the Christmas season featured elaborate masques, mummeries, and pageants.  In 1607, King James I insisted that a play be acted on Christmas night and that the Court indulge in games.  One account of an evening’s “moderate dinner” noted a first course of sixteen dishes.  In 1626, the Duke of Buckingham found that the captains, masters, boatswains, gunners, and carpenters of three ships had abandoned their service in favor of Christmas revels, leaving their vessels prey to any enemy. The backlash to this, and many other non-religious extravagances led to the strengthening of the puritan faction in England and a “crackdown” on these excesses. (Restad, 1996)

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England

Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England

The rise of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Commonwealth dealt a staggering blow to England’s Christmas celebrations.  In England during the Cromwellian interregnum, attending a Christmas service could get one into deep trouble, as it did for diarist John Evelyn.  On Christmas Day, 1657, musket-pointing Puritan soldiers  arrested he and his wife while they were receiving the sacrament, threatening them “as if they would have shot us at the altar.”  Although the stroke of a Puritanical pen outlawed many an old English custom thought to have had pagan origins, in the tradition-shrouded recesses of the countryside such edicts were contemptuously ignored and many, such as the yule log, decorating with ivy, laurel, holly, and other greenery,  and going out caroling or wassailing.

By the Georgian period, England was celebrating Christmas and the following days once again.  George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte, brought the first version of the present day Christmas tree to England in 1800 and decorated it with gifts, dolls, and tapers after her German traditions.  Although Queen Charlotte brought the Christmas tree to England in 1800, the tree did not become popular until Queen Victoria married German Prince Albert.

Boxing Day - London

A Satirical Drawing of People Lined Up to Receive Their Christmas Box

The gift giving tradition also became popular during the eighteenth century.  Boxing Day, a holiday traditionally celebrated the day following Christmas Day, was when servants apprentices and tradespeople would receive gifts, known as a “Christmas box”, from their bosses or employers.  The practice is still observed in England as well as many of the member countries of the as the wealthy gave gifts to their servants and apprentices.  Boxing Day is still observed as a holiday in England and many of the Commonwealth countries.

Christmas in the American Colonies

The early North American colonists brought their version of the Twelve Days over from England, and adapted them to their new country, adding their own variations over the years.  However, the celebration of Christmas, and the days following, varied from colony to colony.

Christmas celebrations were outlawed in most of New England.  Calvinist Puritans and Protestants abhorred the entire celebration and likened it to pagan rituals and Popish observances.  In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts forbade, under the fine of five shillings per offense, the observance “of any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forebearing of labour, feasting, or any such way.”  This law was not repealed until the year 1681.(Howe, 1879)  The Assembly of Connecticut, in the same period, prohibited the reading of the Book of Common Prayer, the keeping of Christmas and saints days, the making of mince pies, the playing of cards, or performing on any musical instruments except the drum, trumpet, and Jew’s harp. (Breck, 1845)  These statutes remained in force until their repeal early in the nineteenth century.

Portrait of Pehr (Peter) Kalm

Pehr (Peter) Kalm

In 1749, Peter Kalm noted that the Quakers completely dismissed celebrating Christmas in Philadelphia.  Kalm made another interesting observation about the Presbyterians as well.  He wrote in his diary:

Christmas Day. . . .The Quakers did not regard this day any more remarkable than other days.  Stores were open, and anyone might sell or purchase what he wanted. . . .There was no more baking of bread for the Christmas festival than for other days; and no Christmas porridge on Christmas Eve!  One did not seem to know what it meant to wish anyone a merry Christmas. . . .first the Presbyterians did not care much for celebrating Christmas, but when they saw most of their members going to the English church on that day, they also started to have services.

Further South in Virginia, Christmas celebrations followed the custom in England for any given period.  In the early 1700s, the entire Christmas season passed with very little celebration other than religious services.  Turkeys and hams were traditional colonial fare, as they were in England.  Even in the midst of a hot and sickly summer, a Yorktown resident thought to ship two “Christmas turkeys” to London, saying, “Mrs Mary Ambler will send hams to eat with them.”  But that was about as Christmassy as colonial Virginians became.  It was no different in London for William Byrd in 1718, whose diary contributed only that he “ate some roast beef for dinner” in what we would consider a late lunch.  No gifts given or gifts received. The following Christmas he was at sea on his way back to Virginia and eating plum pudding and boiled mutton, followed by roasted chestnuts and a bowl of punch with the captain.  Byrd also conducted a service for the crew and wrote his own prayer

Charcoal sketch of Phillip Vickers Fithian

Phillip Vickers Fithian

As time passed, celebrations became more acceptable in Virginia.  For most of Virginia’s devout Anglicans, the season of Advent was a penitential time of reflection, anticipation, and expectation for the coming of Christ.  This spiritual preparation was reflected most clearly in the liturgy and prayers of the church during Advent.  The daily and Sunday readings from the Book of Common Prayer featured the two great heralds of Christ– the prophet Isaiah and John the Baptist.  Fasting, consuming only one full meal (often meatless) during the day, was recommended as another form of self-examination in preparation for Christmas.  The Advent season emphasized the timeless clash between darkness and light, evil and good.  Perhaps at a time of the year when daylight is at an ebb, and in a place where life was more tenuous than now, the joy of expectation of the holiday became even greater for the people of Virginia.  Presbyterian missionary Philip Vickers Fithian’s  keen observation of December 18, 1773, strongly indicated a season of expectation:

When it grew to dark to dance. . . . we conversed til half after six; Nothing is now to be heard of in conversation, but the Balls, the Fox-hunts, the fine entertainments, and the good fellowship, which are to be exhibited at the approaching Christmas. (Fithian, 1900)

Interestingly, Fithian’s writings also show just how differently Christmas could be observed within a single colony, depending on where you were and with whom you spent the season.  In the previous passage, Fithian was engaged as a tutor to the family of Robert Carter III at his plantation, Nomini Hall on the Northern Neck of Virginia.  In 1775 and 1776 Fithian went to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia and the Susquehanna River Valley in Pennsylvania as a missionary to the Scots-Irish Presbyterian settlements in the region.  Here, Fithian found a very different sort of Christmas.  The following is part of his diary entry for December 25:

Christmas Morning–Not A Gun is heard–Not a Shout–No company or Cabal assembled–To Day is like other Days every Way calm & temperate– People go about their daily Business with the same Readiness, & apply themselves to it with the same Industry. (Fithian, 1900)

As we can see, the history of Christmas celebrations, and the celebrations and revelries of the 12 Days of Christmas is a long and winding one, ultimately ending in the Twelfth Night Celebration, often the biggest and most elaborate party of the Georgian Christmas season.  Why not plan to observe the Christmas season next year in the Georgian way, by planning your entertainments for the period between Christmas Day and Epiphany?  Let me know how you think this might work out and what you are planning.

In our next post, we will look at the Twelfth Night celebration, arguably the biggest and most important celebration during the Georgian Christmas season. 

Works Cited

Breck, S. (1845). Discourse Before the Society of the Sons of New England of the City and County of Philadelphia. Philadelphia John C. Clark.

Coffin, T. P. (1973). The Book of Christmas Folklore. New York: Seabury Press.

Fithian, P. V. (1900). Philip Vickers Fithian: Journal and Letters, 1767-1774. Carlisle, Massachusetts: Applewood Books.

Howe, D. W. (1879). The Puritan Republic of the Massachusetts Bay in New England. Indianapolis: The Bowen-Merrill Company.

Restad, P. L. (1996). Christmas in America: A History. London: Oxford University Press.


© 2014
Chuck H


One comment on “The Twelve Days of Christmas

  1. […] we have previously discussed here, in the 18th and early 19th Centuries the Advent season leading up to Christmas, as well as […]


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