Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Twelve Days of Christmas

by | December 19, 2011 | 20 comments

By Anna Kathryn Lanier

Okay, here’s a pet peeve of mine….those who don’t know when the twelve days of Christmas are. These days I’m seeing all sorts of references to the Twelve Days of Christmas. Between now and Christmas: get free books, recipes, or enter a contest. The only problem is that NOW is not the Twelve Days of Christmas. They are not the twelve days BEFORE Christmas. They are the twelve days AFTER Christmas. This mixed-up reference, is to me, as maddening as those who object to Christmas decorations before Halloween. We are putting one celebration before another.

Part of this confusion comes from people who are not part of a liturgical church tradition. This is not a bad thing, it’s just a misunderstanding of when and what the Twelve Days are all about. The churches that follow a liturgical year (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost) have set the time-line for the celebration of the Twelve Days of Christmas….the Christmas season, which is from December 25th through January 5th, the day before the Epiphany or the traditional day of celebration for the visit of the Three Kings to the baby Jesus. 

In some cultures, Christmas is celebrated as a holy day, without the exchange of gifts. Gifts are instead exchanged on Epiphany or, in some cases, a gift a day is exchanged during the Twelve Days of Christmas. Epiphany, January 6th, as said, is the observation of the day the Magi arrived to pay homage to the Christ child. They brought their gifts for the new-born king. In the liturgical year, it is the beginning of the Epiphany season, the time before Lent starts with its forty days of self-deprivation.

No doubt, you’ve heard of Mardi Gras and the big parties held around the world in observance of it. A traditional time of celebration and revelry. One goodie often found at this time is a king cake, a reference to the three kings. This time of celebration is held during Epiphany Season, and ends on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.

Ah, but I digress, though I did want to show how the year follows one thing after another. It helps to explain when the correct Twelve Days of Christmas are. The Liturgical Year starts with the First Sunday of Advent, four Sundays before Christmas Day. For 2011, that ‘new year’s day’ was November 27th. From then until Christmas Day, the liturgical church is in the season of Advent. The season of Christmas starts with Christmas Day and goes for twelve days. January 5th is often referred to as Twelfth Night. In some traditions, it marks the removal of Christmas decorations and feasting.

I’m also sure you’ve heard of the song The Twelve Days of Christmas. The origin of this song is in dispute, but the meaning behind it doesn’t seem to be. The items given to the ‘singer’ of the song are not as simple as they appear. The do, in fact, refer to God’s grace.

Ace Collins in “Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas” explains the meanings behind the gifts:

The “true love” giving the gifts represented the pure love of God. Each gift represented a major doctrine of the Catholic faith.

A Partridge in a Pear Tree

The partridge represents the courage and devotion of Christ dying for his people. A mother partridge will lure predators away from her chicks, even sacrificing her life for them. The pear tree symbolizes the wooden cross upon which Jesus died.

Two Turtle Doves

This represents the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Doves also symbolize truth and peace.

Three French Hens

French hens were the food of kings in sixteenth century England. Here they represent the expensive gifts brought by the wise men to the newborn Jesus.

Four Calling Birds

These symbolize the authors of the four Gospels.

Five Gold Rings

These are the five Old Testament books known as the Law of Moses.

Six Geese A-Laying

Here we have the six days in which God created the world. The eggs, from which new life springs, symbolize creation.

Seven Swans a-Swimming

These represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit outlined by the apostle Paul: prophesy, service, teaching, encouraging, giving, leadership and mercy. The swan, a graceful bird, symbolized these virtues.

Eight Maids A-Milking

Being a milk maid was one of the lowest jobs in sixteenth century England. Jesus came to save the poor and the humble, thus this gift represents Jesus’ love for the common people.

Nine Ladies Dancing

This dance represents the nine fruits of the spirit: love joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Ten Lords A-Leaping

Here is a reminder of the Ten Commandments.

Eleven Pipers Piping

These represent the eleven faithful apostles who followed Jesus to the end and spread his message after his death. While there were twelve apostles, one betrayed Jesus.

Twelve Drummers Drumming

This is a symbol for the twelve tenets of the Catholic faith laid out in the prayer, “The Apostles’ Creed”. The drummers may provide the cadence for reciting this prayer.

Thinking you might want to give these gifts? Remember that the items repeat themselves. So that on the second day, it’s a gift of two turtle doves AND a partridge in a pear tree. On the third day it’s three French hens, two turtle doves and another partridge in a pear tree. So that at the end of the 12 days you’d have given 364 gifts. The cost of these gifts for 20l1 to went up 3.5% over 2010’s price. Today it will cost $24,263.18 to give your true love “The Twelve Days of Christmas” gifts. And remember, you start giving them on Christmas Day…not December 13 or 14th.

Read more at: 

Suite101: The Twelve Days of Christmas: Legend of the Christmas Carol’s Twelve Gifts

Your Daily Dose – Twelve Days of Christmas

Anna Kathryn Lanier



This post first appeared at Sweethearts of the West’s blog on December 20, 2010.


  1. Jenn!

    This is fascinating, Melinda. What a great history lesson. I had no idea of the origin, much less the meaning behind the 12 Days of Christmas.

  2. Lea

    I really enjoyed reading this. I even shared it with my church friends. I think with Christmas being on Sunday it would be a nice message to share.

  3. Callie Hutton

    What always bothered me about Christmas was all the hysteria and hoopla beforehand, and then as soon as the day ends, everything shuts down. When my kids were little we celebrated the Christmas Season, which went on for at least a week after Christmas. I always felt so sad seeing thrown away Christmas trees at the curb the day after Christmas. It was like the only thing about christmas was the shopping and gifts, so once that was all over, let’s shut it down and throw it away.

    Wow, didn’t realize how much this annoyed me until I started writing this.

  4. Ally Broadfield

    This is a great post. We are one of those families that leaves our live trees up until they become a fire hazard. My oldest son’s birthday is January 9th, and he always asks to have his birthday presents placed under the tree (okay, this is a bit past the twelfth day). All of our neighbors turn off the outside lights on the 26th, but we always keep them on through the twelfth. We have a local radio station that starts playing Christmas music on November 1st. I haven’t had success yet in lobbying them to continue to play the music after Christmas day, but I keep trying.

    I’m with you, Callie. I knew how much this annoyed me, but now I’m all riled up again!

  5. Susan Muller

    I always love your history lessons. Keep them going.

  6. Sandy Rowland

    I learned from your post.
    Love it!
    It’s a keeper and brings us back to the meaning of Christmas.

    Thank you.

  7. jean drew

    Great post. I’m sure the days were changed by businesses wanting to see how much more they can squeeze out of us before Christmas.

  8. Ella Quinn

    I agree, I had no idea of the meaning of the gifts. Having lived in Europe for many years, I did know about the 12 days of Christmas. Great job.

  9. Debby Lee

    Very informative article, I enjoyed reading it and learning about the meaning of this neat Christmas song. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Ginger Simpson

    Wonderful post, and so timely. I will never again object to those who keep their decorations up until mid-January, but I admit those who leave them up all year still bug me. *lol* I wish you guys would add the FB and twitter buttons on your site. I’d love to share this post the easy way. 🙂

  11. Roseanne Dowell

    Thanks for sharing. I knew the 12 days were after Christmas. My mother always kept her tree and decorations up until Jan. 6th as do I. My son happened to be born on Jan. 6th, so that year the decorations stayed up considerably longer until I was able to take them down. If I recall the 12 days of Christmas song was written because the people of England weren’t allowed to be Catholic and this was a way to memorize what you stated the meanings of each item.

  12. Susan Macatee

    Very educational post! I never knew the true meaning of the Twelve Days of Christmas. On news programs they always point out what the cost of the actual gifts would be.

    We truly have lost the real meaning of Christmas.

  13. Anna Kathryn Lanier

    Hi, everyone! So great to come home to so many posts. Unfortunately, I actually don’t celebrate the twelve days of Christmas, but maybe I will start this year! We do leave our tree and outside lights up until at least New Year’s Day. This year we have a real tree, so it may not last until Dec. 6th, but it will stay up until NYD, as our family will actually open presents this year on that weekend. I agree, we have gotten away from true meaning and celebration of the season.

  14. Calisa Rhose

    I’ve heard the story, the meaning of the song before but had forgotten. I’m one of those who leaves the tree and lights up until February if I can get away with it. All my life the tree always stayed up until Jan 1. With my birthday three days after Christmas it’s easily my fave time of year, but there’s just something about the lights that hold onto THE season a little longer. I did not know when the twelve days were. Very informative. Thank you.

  15. Karyn Good

    Thank you for the confirmation. I was beginning to wonder if I had it wrong. Every time I see something referencing to the Twelve Days of Christmas I think, wait, doesn’t that celebration start with Christmas Day? Now I know. Great post.

  16. Ilona Fridl

    Anna, I agree with your pet peeve, because it’s one of mine. In our family we always left the decorations up until the twelveth day. Then the next day we took them down.

  17. Pam R

    Thank you for information on the song. Very iteresting nd enlighting.

  18. Tanya Hanson

    Dear Anna, I did know this. I have a lovely book my mother gave me long ago that explains the symbolism. The song was used to teach little children the catechism during persecution. We try to keep our tree up until January sixth, but sometimes with trash pickup or other events, it’s not possible. But it’s always up through New Years. Merry Christmas, everybody.

  19. Angelyn

    this is great—I’ve bookmarked it for future reference. I enjoyed reading the comments as well. Very thought-provoking.

  20. Emma

    We also left the tree and decorations up until January 6th and I do remember the idea of a Christmas ‘season’ as opposed to just Christmas Day. It made the visiting a whole lot easier.

    I hate to say it, but I’m almost glad it’s down to one day because, by the time we get to December 25th, I’ve had enough. I just want it to end. But, of course, what I’ve had enough of is exactly what so many of you have already mentioned–the shopping, the ads, the crowded parking lots, the nasty, overtired, stressed out people and, of course, all the nonsense of visits and gifts. Throw in the crazy people who get all huffy over ‘the war on Christmas’ and holiday trees or happy holidays–didn’t ‘holiday’ come from ‘Holy Day?’–and I’m ready to bag the whole thing. Seriously.

    I’m ready for St. Patrick’s Day. And a nice shot of Jaimeson’s.



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