The Twelve Days of Christmas are the festive days beginning the evening of Christmas Day (December 25) through the morning of Epiphany on (January 6). The first night of Christmas is December 25–26, and Twelfth Night is January 5–6.
The Twelve Days of Christmas as a celebration and festival is old and steeped in traditions from Christian cultures around the world. For many, the idea of the 12 days as a length of celebration is based on a verse in the Holy Bible (Matthew 2:1-12), and a belief that it may have taken 12 days for the three kings (or magi) to travel to Bethlehem after first seeing the star.
Over the centuries, differing churches and sects of Christianity have changed the actual traditions, time frame, and their interpretations. By this day in time, the 12 days and nights are celebrated in widely varying ways around the world. For example, some give gifts only on Christmas night, some only on Twelfth Night, and some each of the 12 nights. What remains constant is the respectful and deeply religious honor celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25th, and a period of twelve days and nights following leading to Epiphany.
Twelve Days of Christmas is also an English Christmas carol which enumerates a series of grandiose gifts given on each day of the festival. It has been one of the most popular and most-recorded Christmas songs in America and Europe throughout the past century.
The origin of the Twelve Days is complicated, and is related to differences in calendars, church traditions, and ways to observe this holy day in various cultures (see Christmas). In the Western church, Epiphany is usually celebrated as the time the Wise Men or Magi arrived to present gifts to the young Jesus (Matt. 2:1-12). Traditionally there were three Magi, probably from the fact of three gifts, even though the biblical narrative never says how many Magi came. In some cultures, especially Hispanic and Latin American culture, January 6th is observed as Three Kings Day, or simply the Day of the Kings (Span: la Fiesta de Reyes, el Dia de los Tres Reyes, or el Dia de los Reyes Magos; Dutch: Driekoningendag). Even though December 25th is celebrated as Christmas in these cultures, January 6th is often the day for giving gifts. In some places it is traditional to give Christmas gifts for each of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Since Eastern Orthodox traditions use a different religious calendar, they celebrate Christmas on January 7th and observe Epiphany or Theophany on January 19th.
By the 16th century, some European and Scandinavian cultures had combined the Twelve Days of Christmas with (sometimes pagan) festivals celebrating the changing of the year. These were usually associated with driving away evil spirits for the start of the new year.