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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.

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