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Twelve Days of Christmas Traditions and Celebrations Ending January Fifth

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Glenis lives in England and has a keen interest in the country's history and traditions, often unwittingly revealed in Shakespeare's plays.

Curious about different 12 Days of Christmas traditions?

Curious about different 12 Days of Christmas traditions?

What Are Christmastide and Twelfth Night?

Christmastide is a season in the Christian liturgical calendar. It is 12 days of religious celebrations that start on Christmas Day, marking the birth of Jesus Christ. Each of the following eleven days was, and still is in the Catholic Church, a celebration of Jesus Christ and various Christian saints. Twelfth Night (5th January) is the night before Epiphany—the day that marks the visit of the three magi to the newly born Christ child, believed by Christians to have been sent by God to save the world. The UK nowadays is a largely secular society, so for many people, the emphasis during the twelve days of Christmas is on parties and fun.

Twelfth Night and the Lord of Misrule in Tudor England

In Elizabethan England (1558–1603), Twelfth Night was the climax of the Christmastide season. It was an occasion for music, elaborate fancy-dress masked balls, and parties, during which whoever found a dried bean baked into a special cake was declared "Lord of Misrule" for the night. The normal strict social hierarchy was overturned for one day. The Lord of Misrule controlled the evening's festivities and issued instructions that all in a household, including the Royal court, must obey.

Shakespeare's comedy Twelfth Night, or What You Will, provides a picture of riotous revelry in Tudor England. The character of drunken, gluttonous Sir Toby Belch is sometimes interpreted as an example of the Lord of Misrule.

A traditional English Twelfth Night rich fruitcake

A traditional English Twelfth Night rich fruitcake

Shakespeare's Twelfth NIght Feste, Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aquecheek

Shakespeare's Twelfth NIght Feste, Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aquecheek

Christmas Pantomime: A Uniquely British Theatre Event

Pantomime is a British theatre event eagerly anticipated as a Christmas treat by children (and many adults!). It's a light-hearted, eccentric family event during which groups of kids are often invited on the stage. Slapstick is an important part of the performance—the throwing of custard pies, the ugly sisters (who are always played by men) falling over, silly costumes, and the pantomime horse, which is played by two people in a horse costume.

Pantomimes take place around the Christmas period and are based on well-known children’s stories such as Peter Pan, Aladdin, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. They feature a hero, a heroine and a villain (whose appearance on stage is accompanied by loud boos from the audience).

Pantomime is performed to sold-out audiences by casts of well-known actors in large theatres and by amateur dramatic companies in village halls. Because the events are so popular, theatre runs often extend well beyond the twelve days of Christmas, sometimes into early February.

Christmas pantomime

Christmas pantomime

Superstition About Twelfth Night

Superstition has it that Christmas decorations should be removed from the home before midnight on Twelfth Night—otherwise, bad luck will fall on the house during the coming year. Many people decorate their homes during November nowadays, and they are removed soon after Christmas Day. But my Christmas tree stays in place until almost the last minute, despite the needles starting to fall, as I normally host a Twelfth Night brunch for friends to round off the Christmas season.

The Twelve Days of Christmas According to the Christian Liturgical Calendar

  1. Nativity of the Lord
  2. St. Stephen's Day
  3. Feast of St. John, Apostle, and Evangelist
  4. Feast of the Holy Innocents
  5. Memorial of St. Thomas Becket, Bishop, and Martyr
  6. Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph
  7. Feast of Pope St. Sylvester
  8. Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
  9. St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nazianzus
  10. Memorial of the Holy Name of Jesus
  11. Feast of St. Simeon Stylites
  12. Epiphany, Revelation of God Incarnate as Jesus Christ (Twelfth Night)

Who Were the Three Kings Who Appeared After Twelfth Night?

The three kings, or wise men, are thought to have been Eastern astrologers. The birth of a savior of the Jews had been long predicted. It is mentioned in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 60:1–6. According to the Gospel of Matthew, the magi saw the birth of a new star, which they took as a sign that the Christ child had been born, and used the star as a compass to lead them to Bethlehem and Jesus.

Three Magi see a new star born

. . . behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

— New Testament. Matthew 2:2

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Read More From Holidappy

Three Kings Festival (Fiesta los Tres Reyes) in Spain

Three Kings Festival (Fiesta los Tres Reyes) in Spain

The Three KIngs Brought Precious Gifts to Jesus

. . . they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

— New Testament. Matthew 2:8

The Symbolism of the Gifts Presented to the Infant Jesus Christ by the Magi

  • The symbolism of the gifts reported in the Gospels as having been given to the baby Jesus appears to reflect both recognition of his status and a prediction of his death.
  • Gold symbolized kingship
  • Frankincense symbolized deity
  • Myrrh is an embalming fluid that symbolized death

References and Further Reading accessed 23rd November, 2021 accessed 21st November, 2021

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Glen Rix


Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on January 12, 2020:

Thanks for sharing the information and the significance of this day. I also studied Twelfth Night, but missed so much of the meaning, Knowledge is fascinating.

Liz Westwood from UK on January 07, 2020:

Fascinating article. I also studied Shakespeare's play many years ago. You have reminded me about our visit to Marbella 4 years ago at this time. I thought the photo was familiar. It was certainly an interesting experience.

Glen Rix (author) from UK on January 06, 2020:

Thanks for your comments, Doris. I am surprised that you were not taught that the days leading up to Christmas are Advent in the liturgical calendar.

Do you not have Advent calendars in the US? Mostly, these are for young children. They are large, single sheet, picture cards on which there is a little closed flap for each of the 24 days of December leading up to Christmas Day. Behind each flag is either a nativity picture or a tiny chocolate treat. Children are intended to open one window each day, building up their excitement as Christmas Day approaches - but I suspect many cheat to get at the chocolates!

All good wishes for 2020

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on January 05, 2020:

Interesting to learn the story of the 12 Days of Christmas since coming from a non-Catholic community, I did not. I guess I thought the 12 days referred to the days leading up to Christmas Day. This was not taught in church or at our high school.

Glen Rix (author) from UK on January 05, 2020:

Hello, Peggy and Anne.All good wishes for 2020.

I have so many wonderful memories of twelfth night in Marbella, tinged with some sadness as it was at the time of the terrible tsunami in the Far East.

I gave a successful brunch for friends this morning, to round off Christmastide - a compote of prunes and clementine in a port syrup served with muesli and Greek yoghurt; scrambled eggs and smoked salmon; French roast coffee. After which we went to a matinee screening of Little Women - wonderful.

The tree is now in the yard, waiting for transportation to the recycling centre and, as you say, Anne, the house now looks very bare. I may rerun the dvd of Rylance production of the Globe’s Twelfth Night this evening. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on the article.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 05, 2020:

It was very interesting learning the history and traditions regarding the Twelfth Day of Christmas from you. It must have been fun to see those festivities in person while in Spain. In the next day or two, we will have all of our decorations put up for the year. Wishing you a happy and healthy 2020.

Ann Carr from SW England on January 05, 2020:

Lovely to see a hub from you Glenis. This is great.

I too studied Twelfth Night, for my 'O' levels (now GCSEs of course!) and I loved it.

I try to leave taking down the Christmas tree for as long as possible. This year, I did it yesterday as I have other things to do this weekend and couldn't be sure I'd have time. It makes everything look so bare after the lights and decorations and cards all over the place.

Lots of interesting details here, most of which I knew. I didn't know what each night signified though so thanks for including the list.

I was in France for Epiphany once, many moons ago, and they too have a cake in celebration of the kings. Theirs hides a figure of a king and the one who has it in his or her piece is treated to a crown.

I hope you enjoyed Christmas and I wish you a very happy 2020.


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