Our Blog : Learn More About the Twelve Days of Christmas

St. Distaff's Day or Plough Monday

As I discussed in this blog post the Twelve Days of Christmas represented a time of rest and relaxation for workers. The down-side to the prohibition on work was that everything had to be done before Christmas Day, but the upside was that for twelve wonderful days, families got to spend time together and focus on resting and staying warm by the fire.

Sadly, now that the Twelve Days of Christmas are over, it is time to get back to normal. So on this St. Distaff's Day (or Plough Monday, as it would be called for the men) it is time to take down the ornaments and lights off the tree, wrap up the nativity figures and take the lights off the house so they can all be stored away in the attic again to come out later this year. Sometimes it feels good to get things back to "normal," but I for one always miss all the twinkling lights and sentimental decorations. Let the countdown beging to December 25, 2013!

Epiphany or Woman's Christmas

January 6 is Epiphany, also known as Three Kings Day, Old Christmas, or my personal favorite - Woman's Christmas. The time between Christmas Day (December 25) - celebrated by many as the day of Jesus' birth, and Epiphany (January 6) is believed to represent the time that it took the Three Wise Men (or the Three Kings or the Three Magi) to travel to Baby Jesus. Some faiths celebrate January 6 as the day on which Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. In Ireland, Januar 6 is still celebrated as Woman's Christmas - a day when men take over the housework and women celebrate the close of the Christmas season by either going out together, or staying in and being served by the men.

In cultures that celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas and Epiphany, January 6 marks the end of the Christmas Season. Believe it or not, there are some cultures where the Christmas celebration lasts until February 2 - this celebration is called Candlemas.

Epiphany is another gift-giving day, and king cakes are eaten to celebrate the close of the Christmas season. Other cultures' celebrations of Epiphany center around water - involving baptismal rights and house blessings.

However you celebrate on January 6, I hope you savor this last day of Christmas, before going back to a normal routine and taking down your Christmas tree and decorations and lovingly storing them away for next year!

Adoration of the Magi, Bartolome Esteban Murillo, 17th Century

Twelfth Night

If you have been celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas, then you probably know that tomorrow, January 6, is the Twelfth Day of Christmas (also known as Epiphany). That makes tonight Twelfth Night (or Eve of Epiphany, also known as Old Christmas Eve). If you are familiar with the Twelve Days of Christmas carol, and can remember all of the gift bestowed upon the singer, you might get the idea that by the Twelfth Day of Christmas the singer's house is overrun with birds, musicians and household help. Well, that would make sense if you celebrated Twelfth Night - the culmination of the Christmas season's festivities. 

In medieval times, Twelfth Night was celebrated with grand balls and village parties, complete with Twelfth Night cakes (whether it be a French version, or an English one), with a bean or trinket hidden inside to choose the "king" to preside over the night's revelries.

Shakespeare's Twelfth Night or What You Will is believed to have premiered on January 6, 1601. In Elizabethan times, a temporary Lord of Misrule presided over the season's revelries while the nobility acted as servants - a world deliberately turned upside down for a short time. Social conventions were often broken at Twelfth Night parties where it was "anything goes" or, in other words, "What You Will." The title alludes to the festival atmosphere of the play and the plot involving illusions, mistaken identity, masquerades, jealousy, and of course, love.

Whatever the Twelfth Night of Christmas holds for you, I hope that it is warm and joyful, and helps you look forward to the next Christmas Season!

Twelfth-Night (The King Drinks), 1634-40, by David Teniers the Younger

The First Day of Christmas

In different parts of the world, the First Day of Christmas, December 26, is known as St. Stephen's Day, the Day of the Wren, or Boxing Day.

St. Stephen's Day or the Day of the Wren

December 26th is a day devoted to remembrance of the Christian martyr, St. Stephen. In countries where St. Stephen is still celebrated, people devote the day to spending time with friends and family.

St. Stephen is believed by many to be the first Christian martyr - he was stoned to death sometime around 33 CE.

St. Stephen's Day has been a holiday in Ireland for hundreds of years, where it is known as The Day of the Wren, and is still a public holiday today. The wren is related to St. Stephan because of stories that a wren betrayed St. Stephen's presence while he was hiding from his enemies.

Boxing Day

As was discussed in this blog post, in the Middle Ages the First Day of Christmas was a day when earthenware boxes full of coins were distributed to servants. Churches also circulated donation boxes amonts the congregation during Advent, and those boxes and their contents were distributed amongst the poor on the day after Christmas.

Several countries still celebrate Boxing Day - including Scotland, Ireland, Australia and Canada. In some Canadian provinces Boxing Day is a statutory holiday when all workers are given a mandatory day off with full pay. In the countries that still celebrate Boxing Day, it is much like the day after Thanksgiving in the United States - a huge shopping day. Which is really kind of ironic given the historical bases for the holiday.

Beggars Receiving Alms at the Door of a House, 1658, by Rembrandt Van Rijn

Twelve Days of Rest

By winter's onset, daylight was short, the harvest was finished, and all winter provisions should have been stocked. During the Twelve Days all work was forbidden, other than necessary care of farm animals and daily meal preparations. The applied equally to "women's work" such as spinning, even though it could be done indoors where it was warmer. This prohibition on work during Yuletide was even set into law by the Anglo-Saxon king, Alfred the Great.

There were other incentives to be sure that all chores were completed on time - any work attempted during the Twelve Days would be undone or spoiled: the "devil" would cut down any flax left on the distaff (a staff to hold unspun fibers); milling would cause all grain within earshot to go rotten; laundry hung out to dry would be carried off by Odin's pack of wild dogs; etc. The reward for meeting the deadline was twelve days off - a generous holiday break even today. January 7 was called "St. Distaff's Day" - a tongue-in-cheek name for the end of women's leisure (there was/is no saint by this name). Men, on the other hand, were off until "Plough Monday" - the first Monday after the Twelfth Day.

I know that while cleaning the house for Christmas Eve dinner I felt like I was earning my twelve days of rest, and am glad it has come! Merry Christmas to you and yours from all of us at Twelve Days!

Twelve Days of Fortelling the Future

Many old folk traditions to foretell the future became associated with the Twelve Days of Christmas. For instance, dreams during the Twelve Nights were believed to foreshadow events that would occur in the ensuing year. The weather  (sun, wind, snow, rain) on the Twelve Days of Christmas was thought to predict the weather for each of the corresponding twelve months of the new year. 

It was not just the country folk who believed in the predictive value of the Twelve Days: Tycho Brahe, a pioneering 16th-century astronomer, theorized that the configuration of the heavenly bodies could be used to forecast the weather in the coming months and meticulously recorded his observations during the Twelve Days of Christmas to test his theory. Although predicting weather by the Twelve Days is not a quaint relic in the Old Farmer's Almanac, this is not as far-fetched as it may seem - scientists today still study events in space to analyze their potential effects on our weather.

The Astronomical Observations: The Moon, 1711, by Donato Creti

The First Day of Winter - Moving Towards Longer Days

Today, December 21, is the Winter Solstice. That mean's a couple of things: today is the shortest day of the year, tonight is the longest night of the year, and today is the first day of Winter. Lots of different cultures celebrate this time of year with some kind of fire ritual.

Midwinter Fire Rituals in Ancient Europe

The great solstice fire festivals of ancient Europe lived on during the Twelve Days: Yule Logs, bonfires, torches, and ceremonial candles were all still burned to secure good fortune, fertility for livestock, and bountiful crops in the new year. The smaller household Yule log was usually burned during the Twelve Nights, or for at least a minimum of twelve hours. The wood of the Yule log itself was steeped in special powers: the prior year's ashes were strewn over the fallow fiels during the Twelve Days to ensure the vigor of next year's crops; the number of sparks when the log was stoked predicted the number of  calves, piglets, chicks, etc. in the spring; a piece of the log's charred remnants was saved to protect the house from lightning during thunderstorms - to name just a few beliefs! The charred remnant was finally used to kindle the new log at the beginning of the next Twelve Days.

In some places, a massive candle was burned instead - its light must not go out on its own or the luck of the family would be "blown away." In other areas, bonfires were lit on Twelfth Night and, in simulation of the life-giving power of the sun, villagers ran with blazing torches throughout the fields and orchards to promote a good harvest.

The Yule Log was also important to protect households from Odin's entourage of unearthly creatures, who were feared to roam the earth during the Twelve Nights. It was also a bad omen if the Yule Log burned out before the end of the Twelve Days.

The Yule Log is one of the most deep-rooted and widespread customs still enjoyed today - from the more traditional Yule Logs still burned in families' fireplaces to the buche de noel cake decorated to look just like a log ready for the fire, to the televised burning Yule log broadcast on Christmas for those without a fireplace of their own.

Twelve Days Solstice Festivals in the Ancient Near East

The Mesopotamians held an annual festival for the twelve days surrounding the winter solstice to cheer on their sun god as he battled to conquer the monsters of darkness and chaos. The ordinary social distinctions were suspended for the duration of the victory celebrations, and parades and masquerades were held where everyone mingled together. The ancient Persians held a similar solstice celebration with bonfires burning all night to help their god of light and day defeat the evil god of darkness and night.

Ancient Slavic Midwinter Rituals

In the lands of the ancient Slavic tribes, both sun gods and sun goddesses were revered. Their winter solstice festivals lasted ten to twelve days and were a time when Slavs honored their departed ancestors with fires to keep them warm and feasts to keep them fed, hoping to elicit their assistance in defeating the dark forces that were overpowering the old sun. Young men dressed in animal costumes (bears and horned animals such as goats and stags) and went about singing and shouting to chase away the evil spirits of winter.

Creatures of the Twelve Nights

Tomorrow, December 21, is the Winter Solstice. The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year, or, if you are a glass half-full kind of person, the longest night of the year. It marks a turning point - towards longer days and moving towards spring. These long-nights, especially those between Christmas and Epiphany were a time of much superstition in olden times.

During the Twelve Nights, old superstitions persisted that even more frightening otherworldly beings also wandered the earth. It was thought best to be safe inside with the door barred during the Twelve Nights and hope that Odin and his cortege of spectral hunters, wolves, and lost souls would quickly pass overhead. 

In other areas (such as enclaves of the Balkans and Slavic lands), fearsome creatures from the underworld - malevolent werewolfe-like goblins who dwelt underground the rest of the year - roamed above ground during these nights. They attempted to enter houses through the chimney. To keep safe, embers were kept burning on the hearth  all night long. The goblins were driven away for another year by the ceremonial "blessing of the waters" on Epiphany.

Fishermen also believed that the sea was not safe during the Twelve Days, so they stayed in port from Christmas Day until the waters of the sea were also blessed in the ceremonies on Epiphany.

The Ride of the Valkyries, Arthur Rackham

Twelve Facts about the Twelve Days of Christmas

1.     There’s much more to the Twelve Days of Christmas than the famous carol. The Twelve Days, also known as Christmastide and         Yuletide, are a 12-day season of celebration, gift-giving and relaxing of restrictions that was once as popular as the one-day celebration of Christmas is today.

2.     The Twelve Days come after Christmas Day, not before!  Besides confusing the Twelve Days with a countdown to Christmas, there is also some debate about whether they start on December 25 or 26. The historical evidence best supports December 26 as the First Day of Christmas, and January 6 - Epiphany or Three Kings’ Day - as the Twelfth Day.

3.     In times past, Twelfth Night was the grand finale of the Yuletide season filled with dances, feasts and revels. So why was Twelfth Night celebrated on the evening of January 5th, not the 6th?  This is because in days gone by people considered the evening the start of a new day, not midnight as we do today. Likewise, the first night of the Twelve Days of Christmas is the evening of December 25th.

4.     Why 12 days? Many social historians believe that the timing and duration of the Christmas season are inherited from pre-Christian midwinter festivals that coincided with the Winter Solstice. Early peoples also reckoned time by the moon, and over the course of a year, there is roughly a 12-day difference between the solar and lunar calendars. This 12-day difference was set aside as a special "time out of time", filled with supernatural events and folklore.

5.     In some medieval cultures, the Twelve Nights was a time that evil spirits roamed. Some also believed that immoral men could be transformed into werewolves for the duration of the Twelve Days.

6.     Special food and drink traditions abound during the Twelve Days, beginning with Christmas and continuing at New Year. Twelfth Night has its own traditions: toasting with wassail and special cakes variously called Twelfth Night Cakes, Bean Cakes or Kings' Cakes filled with good luck charms.

7.     Burning the Yule Log throughout the Twelve Days was an ancient custom to protect the home and the family gathered there during this period. The Yule Log tradition still lingers – at least for a few hours – in its annual appearance on cable TV, and in cakes shaped like Yule Logs.

8.     Although Santa Claus is the most well-known dispenser of gifts, there are a number of other mystical gift-bringers around the world who arrive and depart during the Twelve Days. Among them: the Befana, the Babushka, Frau Holle, the mischievous Nordic Yule elves and the Three Kings.

9.     The Twelve Days of Christmas is one of the oldest Christmas carols still sung today. Like other aspects of the Twelve Days, its origin is a matter of debate, but there is strong evidence that it dates to at least the 16th century and is likely even older.

10.  All of the gifts mentioned in the carol really add up – 364 gifts in all! The cost of giving all the gifts in the carol – the so-called Christmas Price Index – exceeded $100,000 for the first time in 2011.

11.  The Twelve Days carol was once a popular party game in the 1700-1800s where making a mistake in the lyrics meant you would have to give up a small token, sweet, or perhaps even a kiss!

12.  The often-repeated tale that the lyrics of the Twelve Days carol were a secret code designed to help Catholics living in Protestant England remember religious doctrine is simply a modern day Christmas myth that lives on in the internet despite having been debunked.


Winter Greenery - What Does it Mean?

One of my favorite parts about the Christmas season is getting to bring a tree in to my living room. I love the smell of an evergreen tree, and having one right next to my couch can't really be beat. I am certainly not alone in my love for greenery. In fact, ancient cultures also used greenery to symbolize good luck and ward off evil-spirits during the darkest days of the year.

The Romans decorated with greenery for the New Year and also gave each other gifts known as strenae, sprigs and green branches gathered from the sacred groves of the woodland goddess of strength and endurance, Strenia. These evergreens were symbols of good luck for the year ahead. Sweet honeyed dates, figs, or small pieces of jewelry sometimes accompanied the strenae. Children were given small gifts, such as clay figurines or bags of nuts that could also be used as game tokens. To this day, gifts during the Christmas season are known as strenna in Italy and New Year's gifts are etrenne in France.

In preparation for the Twelve Days, prickly holly was placed around windows and doors - like evergreen barbed wire - to keep the roaming evil spirits, witches, goblins and trolls from entering the home and to protect the good fairies. Every sprig of evergreen had to be removed by the Twelfth Say or else bad luck would fall upon the home. The admonition to take down evergreens at the end of the Twelve Days was also applied to Christmas trees after they were incorporated into our Christmas customs.

Mistletoe, the only exception to this rule, could be left up until the start of the next Twelve Days since it was thought to protect the home from lightening and fire. Our ancestors held mistletoe in awe because it remained green all year and bore its white berry fruit in winter when the trees on which it grew seemed lifeless. In the days of the Celtic Druids, this magical plant was gathered on special days in accordance with the cycles of the moon and was at its peak of power after the winter solstice.

Hanging Gifts ON the Tree

Did you know that Christmas presents used to be hung on the tree, instead of placed under the tree? In the 1800s, Victorian ladies' magazines promoted hanging presents on a Christmas fir tree and illustrated examples of tree trimming activities such as interwoven ribbons to hold gifts like dolls, toy horses, and little wagons on the tree itself.

Some of the earliest ornaments were fruits such as apples, pears and nuts - treats to savor when the tree was taken down at the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas. As time when on, homemade sweets, such as sturdy gingerbread cookies, also awaited on the tree's branches. While these goodies could be hung on the tree's boughs by strings or cords or carefully balanced in the crook of a branch, they were more secure when tucked into a delicately woven miniature basket or folded paper cone. These presents were more of a surprise and delight when the container's contents were revealed only upon being taken off the tree. Before long, these homemade containers were used to hold small handcrafted gifts or toys for the children.

Popular periodicals published instructions to make containers to hang on the tree, including candy boxes in various shapes and cardboard cornucopias covered in paper (see image at left). Advertisements showed fancy ready-made boxes covered with paper cutouts of Santa or angels, and embellished with velvet, feathers, or fringe. These ornate containers were both elaborate ornamentation for the tree and holders for Christmas presents like nuts, candies, small gifts and toys like marbles or jacks.

Even children's periodicals featured stories of Santa himself hanging little packages and treats one by one on the family's tree, instead of inside their stockings, or under the tree.

The advertisement to the right, dated December 1904, recommends hanging a gift-subscription to Leslie's Magazine on the tree.


Another popular way to hang presents on the tree were Dresdens - three-dimensional hollow containers made of damp cardboard sheets that were molded and embossed into all sorts of fanciful shapes, such as suns, moons, sleighs, and every animal imaginable. They were then painted and lacquered to look as if they were made of gilded metal. While they were beautiful containers in which to hang candy on the Christmas tree, they were not very durable.

Christmas Cornucopia


Barnum's Animal Crackers Boxes

One of the best examples of a box designed to hold treats on a Christmas tree - and still widely available today - is the Barnum's Animal Cracker's box, a favorite childhood memory for over one hundred years. In 1902, the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) launched the circus car box as a Christmas promotion, with the string attached so that the box of Barnum's Animal Crackers could be hung directly on the Christmas tree. The string has remained a part of the package ever since then.

Wassailing the Apple Trees

Wassailing was an old country tradition that took place on Twelfth Night or "Old Christmas Eve," especially in areas where cider apples were grown. Right before dark that wassail (spiced ale or hard cider topped with roasted apples) would be prepared and ladled into the special wassail bowl (similar to a punch bowl with handles). The village would gather at the orchard after dark with the wassail on hand and proceed to bang pots, shoot off guns, and make a racket to frighten away any evil spirits that could still be lurking about on this last night of Christmas. This commotion would also help to begin to "wake up" the trees from their winter hibernation. The trees were blessed with thanks and urged with rhyming chants to produce an even better crop in the new year. The oldest, most venerable tree's health would be "toasted" with a piece of wassail-soaked bread or cake placed in its branches. 

If wassail was left over after regaling the trees, then the ceremonies would conclude with the villagers quenching their own thirst before returning home. In some areas, the young people would go from house to house in the village, singing wassail songs and receiving small gifts or treats in return.

Wassail is an old Middle English contraction of waes hael, meaning "be health" or "be whole," that was derived from the old Norse ves heill "to be healthy." The reply to waes hael was drinc hael, or "drink and be healthy." The modern expression "hale and hearty" shares the same roots.


A Swinging Wassail

  • 1 quart ale
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 5 or 6 pieces cracked ginger or 1 teaspoon powdered ginger
  • 2 cups sherry wine
  • Juice and thinly pared rind of 1 lemon
  • Sugar, to taste
  • 2 slices toasted bread (if desired)
  • 6 or 8 baked crab apples or 2 or 3 baked large apples
* This recipe can be made non-alcoholic by replacing the ale and sherry with apple cider. Another way to do wassail is to have the             punch-mixture be alcohol free and have whisky or champagne available on the side for people to add as they please.

** English Farmer's Wassail - substitute hard cider for ale and 1 cup dark rum for sherry.

Heat ale in saucepan until just about to boil. Stir in spices, sherry, lemon juice, slivered rind and sugar. Stir until sugar dissolves then cover and simmer over low heat for 20 to 30 minutes. Do not boil at any time. Remove from heat and either pour into punch bowl or individual cups and add toast (if desired) and apples. 

Recipe adapted from Visions of Sugarplums by Mimi Sheraton, 1981

Image: Wassailing the Apple Trees With Hot Cider in Devonshire on Twelfth Eve, artist unknown

The Significance of the Number Twelve Throughout the Ages

On 12-12-12, I thought a post about the significance of the number 12 would be nothing but appropriate, so here you go:

The Role of the Moon 

A lunar month, from new moon to new moon, averages 29 ½ days. Twelve lunar months, of a lunar, is about 354 days – short of the 365 ¼ days in the solar year. As a result, additional days – roughly twelve – are needed to keep lunar timekeeping in step with the seasons. For our forebears, these twelve “extra” days were a mystical season out of ordinary time, suspended in the twelve-day gap between cosmic cycles of the moon and sun. These “extra” days are one in the same as The Twelve Days of Christmas. 

Ancient Egyptians

The ancient Egyptians were one of the first people to develop a twelve-month calendar that was based only on the sun instead of the moon. They also divided the day and the night in to twelve hours each. 

Mesopotamians and Ancient Persians 

The Mesopotamians held an annual fire festival for twelve days surrounding the winter solstice (the twelve shortest days of the year) to cheer on their sun god as he battled to conquer the monsters of darkness and chaos. The ancient Persians held a similar solstice celebration with bonfires burning all night to help their god of light and day defeat the evil god of darkness and night. 

Ancient Slavic Rituals 

In the lands of the ancient Slavic tribes, both sun gods and sun goddesses were revered during their winter solstice festivals, which lasted ten to twelve days and were a time when Slavs honored their departed ancestors with fires to keep them warm and feasts to keep them fed, hoping to elicit their assistance in defeating the dark forces that were overpowering the old sun.

My first Twelfth Night Cake - French Edition

Twelfth Night Cake
I have known about "Twelfth Night Cakes" for a while, but I had never baked one before this French Twelfth Night Cake (Gateau des Rois - King's Cake). This cake is really more of a rich bread, due to the high number of eggs, and the relatively low amount of sugar. It goes great with a cup of coffee for breakfast, too!

In old English and French Twelfth Night celebrations, a cake would be baked to celebrate Epiphany. In both English and French traditions, an bean and a pea would be baked in to the cake, and whoever got the piece with the pea and the bean, would be the king and queen of the night. To read more about twelfth-cake (also called King's Cake) see Wikipedia.

This cake takes allllllll day to make - but it is not difficult. There are hours and hours of down-time to do other things. From start to finish I think this cake took me about nine hours to make - so start first thing in the morning!


Ingredients for the cake:

Twelfth Night Cake
  • 1 envelope dry yeast
  • 1 tablespoon lukewarm water
  • 3 whole eggs + 1 egg yolk
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • Zest of 1/2 orange
  • 1 tablespoon orange-flower water (a non-alcoholic mixer - available at Bev Mo, or other liquor stores)
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) softened unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
Pan: well-buttered 8-inch square cake pan

Instructions for the cake:

1.    Dissolve packet of yeast into lukewarm water in a small bowl.

2.    While waiting for the yeast to bubble, beat eggs and additional yolk, add salt, sugar, lemon and orange zest and orange-flower water.

3.    Combine egg-mixture with yeast, flour and butter and mix all ingredients with a wooden spoon until thoroughly blended and no butter pieces show.

4.    Chill batter for 4-5 hours in the fridge.
5.    Turn dough into a buttered 8-inch square cake pan, cover loosely and set to rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk - about 3/12 to 4 hours (my kitchen is cold, so I put it in a warm oven four about 4 hours - it never quite doubled in bulk, but it still cooked quite well).

6.    After rising, bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30-40 minutes (until golden brown and a tester or toothpick comes out clean).

7.    Cool in pan, then cool on a rack.
8.    Spread with glaze (see below).

Ingredients for the glaze/topping:

  • Candied cherries and fruit peels (I used a fruit-cake mix of candied fruits)
  • 1/3 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla (or almond) extract
  • 1 teaspoon rum (or brandy) (optional)
  • 1/2 to 1 1/4 tablespoons hot water, as needed

Instructions for the glaze:

1.    Combine sugar, cornstarch, extract and liquor (if desired).

2.    Gradually add hot water, one tablespoon at a time, until a smooth, thick paste is achieved.

3.    Spread glaze on cooled cake, spread with knife, sprinkle with candied sugar pieces.

4.    Let glaze dry, or, if you are impatient like me, just dig in and enjoy!

Both recipes adapted from Visions of Sugarplums by Mimi Sheraton, 1981.

Bowls and Boxes of Holiday Presents

The Urn of Fate

Instead of a bowl full of jelly, how about a bowl full of presents? Ancient Romans exchanged gifts for luck in the New Year, and many Italian families still take turns drawing small gifts by chance from a large bowl called the "Urn of Fate" at their Christmas gatherings.

For more information on Italian Christmas traditions, check out this page, and this page.

Boxes of Hope and Goodwill

In the Middle Ages, earthenware boxes with a slit on top for coins became known as Christmas boxes. On the First Day of Christmas, the nobility distributed these boxes to their servants who later broke them open to receive the small sums of money inside. Other boxes were used as a Yuletide tip jar for guild tradesman (the material used for these boxes was called pygg - the predecessor of piggy banks).

During Advent, donations were collected in churches and monasteries in alms boxes also referred to as Christmas boxes. On the day after Christmas, these boxes were opened and the contents were distributed among the poor. Still other boxes were kept aboard sailing ships for donations to the priest who would offer mass - Christ-mass - prayers upon the safe return of the sailors.

Not surprisingly, the First Day of Christmas (December 26th) is still known as Boxing Day in many parts of the world that once formed the British empire.

Santa's Cohorts and Predecessors

Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas 

Santa Claus is not alone in Christmastime activities. In fact, today, December 6, is St. Nicholas Day. St. Nicholas is the patron saint and protector of children and of sailors (or voyagers). December 6 is St. Nicholas' Feast Day, and is the main gift-giving day in some parts of Europe. As was discussed earlier on the blog, St. Nicholas' day is also celebrated on the eve of the day, December 5. St. Nicholas' day is celebrated in various ways - by sharing candies or small gifts, and in the Netherlands, children leave carrots and hay in their shoes for the saint's horse, hoping the horse-food will be exchanged for a gift. This practice is quite similar to the American practice of leaving out cookies for Santa Claus, and perhaps some carrots for his reindeer. (Of course the line can be drawn between "Old St. Nick" and our modern day Santa Claus). In our family, we awake on December 6 to the magical present of new socks on the front porch filled with walnuts and small oranges.

Image: St. Nicholas by Susan Seals

If you would like to learn more about St. Nicholas, please go to the St. Nicholas Center website, which is full of great information about the Saint. 

The Ladies of Winter: Frau Holle and Frau Berchta/Perchta

Frau Holle (meaning "kind lady") is a winter time character of Germanic heritage. Frau Holle dresses in glistening white and carries keys that unlock all doors. She makes her journey during the Twelve Nights to carry out her judgments and dispense gifts to the deserving. In days gone by, she was revered as the protector of children and the patron of spinning and other "women's work." The winter weather was equated with her daily activities: it rained on her washing day, thundered as she spun, and soft snow fell when she shook out her featherbed.

All spinning work had to be completed and the house spotlessly cleaned by Christmas Eve so that Frau Holle would not be displeased when she arrived on her rounds during the Twelve Nights. She would tangle the threads of any incomplete work but reward the industrious by filling empty spindles and leaving treats of her favorite apples and nuts for good children. Some might be especially fortunate and find a coin that dropped from her unfurled cape during her visit.

Frau Holle's counterpart in more southern alpine areas was Frau Berchta or Frau Perchta (meaning "bright, shining lady") who also roamed the countryside and entered homes during the Twelve Nights. She generally had the more frightening appearance of a witch and meted our harsher punishments to the lazy, but the old crone still had a soft spot for those who had been good during the year, leaving nuts and sugarplums or placing a small silver coin in the shoes before departing. 

Image: Winter, 1896, by Alphonse Maria Mucha


In Nordic folklore, mischievous elves arrive before Christmas one by one and depart one by one each day beginning on December 25, with the last elf leaving on January 6. Although the elves may still try to play tricks on people, nowadays their main task is to leave a series of small gifts in children's shoes placed on the windowsill.


Over the centuries Odin changed from a fearsome war-lord to a charitable Santa Clause-esque fellow. Odin now might leave a loaf of bread at a poor family's home, based on information he gathered by eavesdropping from the shadows at the edge of the Yule fire (again, much like Santa, he knows what you are up to). Children began to look forward to Odin's visits during the Twelve Nights, leaving straw in their shoes for his magic eight-legged horse (perhaps a precursor to Santa's eight reindeer)  in the hopes of finding small gifts and treats as rewards for their good behavior during the past year.

There is more information on Odin available on Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Mythica, and Ancientmythology.com.

For more on Odin's role as a pre-cursor to Santa Claus, check out this Wikipedia page, this article from Examiner.com, and this article on helium.com.

Image: Odin the Wanderer, 1896, by George von Rosen

The Three Kings

The Three Kings
On the night of January 5, the Twelfth Night of Christmas and the eve of Epiphany, the Three Kings astride their camel, horse and elephant, leave presents in the straw-filled shoes of children and adults across Spain, Mexico, Latin America and other parts of the spanish-speaking world. 

Image: The Adoration of the Magi, 1674, by Jan de Bray

La Befana

On the same night that the Three Kings are visiting spanish-speaking children, Italian children are visited by La Befana, a benevolent old woman with magical powers. Legend says she helped the Wise Men during their journey but only belatedly decided to follow them after she finished her sweeping. She flies with a straw broom, enters homes through the chimney, and leaves gifts of candied fruit, sweets, and toys in children's socks even if they are not the one holy child she seeks.

More information on La Befana on Wikipedia and about.com.


A similar story is told about the grandmotherly Russian Babushka, who delays accompanying the Three Kings until the tidies her house. She sets off with her gifts but also never catches up, tenderly leaving a gift for each sleeping child she finds, ever hopeful.

Apparently there is an award winning children's book on Babushka (or Baboushka) by Ruth Robbins. Its available on Amazon.

Whats With all the Eves?

Have you ever wondered: "why is it that December has two major holidays that we celebrate both on the evening before, and the day of?" Of course I am referring to Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve. Well, the answer is that a new day used to start in the evening rather than at midnight. This is why celebrations related to a day (like Christmas, New Years or Epiphany) often began on the evening before the actual day.

Christmas Eve, therefore, used to be the start to the festival season of Christmas, which ran through the New Year until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. The evening before Epiphany (January 5) is called Twelfth Night because it is the twelfth night counting from the evening of December 25. Since we measure our days differently today, the First Day of Christmas is generally thought to be December 26 and, accordingly, the Twelfth Day of Christmas falls on January 6. The last six days of the old year bridge to the first six days of the New Year during the Twelve Days of Christmas.

If you want to read more about Christmas Eve, and the tradition of a day starting the evening before, you can head over to Wikipedia.

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