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!

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