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Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Charlie Brown and friends celebrate
the Twelve Days of Christmas.

A Scots native living in Plainfield related at a recent holiday party how amused he was that Americans played and sang the "Twelve Days of Christmas" song in the runup to Christmas and then dropped it once Christmas Day arrived.

In Scotland, he pointed out, the song is only played beginning on Christmas Day.

The Scots have it right (along with the other celebrants in Great Britan).

The Twelve Days is both a season and a song.

The Twelve Days mark off the time between Christmas and Epiphany (January 6), traditionally celebrated as the arrival of the Magi with their gifts for the infant Jesus (Matt. 2:1-12). They are either counted from Christmas Day and ending on the Eve of the Epiphany, or from the day after Christmas and ending on Epiphany itself.

Traditionally, these are the days of Christmas merrymaking and they end on the Twelfth Day. (In Plainfield, the Van Wyck Brooks Historic District has continued this tradition for many years with its 12th Night Progressive Dinner, which brings the holidays to an end.)

The song (which, blessedly, I can say I have not heard this year) is first recorded in the 18th century as a memories-and-forfeits children's game (see here). A leader led and the group repeated as the verses were piled up. When a participant made a mistake, they paid a forfeit of a sweet or a kiss.

A tradition has also arisen that the song was a catechetical device for young Roman Catholics, who were banned from publicly practicing their faith in England between 1558 and 1829. You can read about that interpretation here, though it is disputed and may be fanciful. (The only "gift" that would admit of a Roman Catholic interpretation only is the seventh, which this tradition suggests represents the seven sacraments recognized by Roman Catholicism; however, it could represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, a doctrine held by all Christians in common.)

Merchandisers could care less about the custom, and on the day after Christmas mobs will descend on the unsold holiday merchandise, after which the heart shapes of Valentine's Day will take their place.

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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