The Real Twelve Days of Christmas: Celebrating in the Old-fashioned Way

It ain't over 'til it's over! Every year kids and adults build up a head of steam for the Christmas holidays. Then the magical day comes and goes too quickly, leaving scraps of wrapping paper and half-munched cookies all around the house, as well as the nagging feeling that someone special has been left off the greeting and gifting list.

Everything from those chocolate-filled Advent calendars, hastily discarded on Christmas Eve as the last morsel is devoured, to the rush for New Year's sales make it all seem as though Christmas is nothing more than a few hours of celebrations. It need not be so. In older times and other countries, the day marking Christ's birth was only the beginning of the holiday that continues until January 5. On January 6, Epiphany is celebrated to remember the visitation of the Three Wise Men.

Of Cakes and Kings

Spanish and Latin American cultures celebrate the Day of the Kings, called la Fiesta de Reyes, el Dia de los Tres Reyes, or el Dia de los Reyes Magos. Holland has its Driekoningendag. For these cultures and others, January 6th is often the day for giving gifts. French and English celebrations included a special cake, either King Cake or Twelfth Night Cake. 

Now that you've made a cake for yourself, invite others to come in and share Old Christmas with you. A later holiday party is exactly the thing for that five-pound wheel of cheddar and several dozen petit fours that came your way on the 25th. A Twelfth Night party can be as simple as a few friends gathering for a good meal or as elaborate as a medieval feast, depending on the whim of the hosts. Think about working in the silly traditions of Daft Days where the King of Fools reigns, playing pranks and causing mischief. The drama people among you may wish to try their hands at a mummer's playSaint George and the Dragon was a great favorite in medieval times. Hoist a mug of mulled cider or wine and sing Wassail (from the Old English wes hal, to be in good health) and celebrate a New Year well started.

Books to Share

The visit of the Three Wise Men has inspired some lovely children's stories. Amahl and the Night Visitors tells how a poor young shepherd comes to accompany the three Kings on their way to pay homage to the newborn Jesus. Baboushka and the Three Kings, winner of the Caldecott Medal, is the story of an old woman who comes to regret that she was too busy to go with the Wise Men. Tomie dePaola's The Story of the Three Wise Kings teams the classic story with the author-artist's simple illustrations. Jan Brett's The Twelve Days of Christmas gives the old song a rousing silliness that children will love as the gifts become ever more extravagant.

Learn More About the Twelve Days of Christmas on the Web

Another Look at Christmas in the 18th Century
Learn how people in 18th-century Virginia prepared for Christmas. A page from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Christine O'Keeffe's Twelfth Night Page
Twelfth Night is part of the end of the year festivities of the British Isles and France. Celebrations began in the fifth century when French and English churches created The Feast of Fools. Temporary Bishops and Archbishops of Fools play-acted revealed and created mischief.


Young ones can enjoy these books about the 12 days of Christmas - both the illustrated versions of the carol and traditional story of the kings' visitation:

CRRL Kids: The Twelve Days of Christmas

If you celebrate Christmas in the traditional way, you'll be celebrating long after the presents are unwrapped! Christmas Day is just the beginning.

An old lady, who was too busy to travel with the Three Kings, now searches Him every Christmas season. Winner of the Caldecott Medal.

One of the more traditional stories has a prince courting a young farm girl with many, many gifts!

Pete the Cat and his friends have a rocking-good-time counting down the 12 Days of Christmas. Also available as an eBook.

Beloved children's illustrator Tomie DePaola lends his talents to illustrating the story of the Three Kings, which might be an excellent choice for Epiphany.

It starts off sweet and small as a little girl's parents give her decorations for their family tree, but soon it all gets out of control, with a visit to North Pole thrown in!

Favorite holiday artist/illustrator Jan Brett illuminates the traditional carol.

A young girl discovers that a magical music box can transport her on a visit to Santa.

This illustrated version of the song has the delicacy of European folk art.

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