From the earliest times the twelve days have been regarded as a time when supernatural events can easily happen, when the dead are close at hand and might often be seen.
One reads of the Wild Hunt, or the Fairy Host riding across the lands of Britain and Germany in particular, led by characters such as King Arthur, Woden, and Arawn, the Celtic god of the Underworld. In Ireland these supernatural hunters are known as the Yule Host, and in common with all these bands they are believed to gather up wandering souls and carry them away to the Otherworld.
The Twelve Days of Christmas stand outside of “ordinary time,” and celebrations focus on the return of the sun and a continuation of the eternal cycle of life.
The days from Christmas Eve on December 24th to Epiphany on the 6th of January (actually fourteen days as the first and last are not included in the twelve) really exist out of linear time. They are, in a sense, the fruit of the past year, one day for each month that has passed. Over the centuries the dates have changed – sometimes radically.
Here’s a list of commonly accepted dates and traditions:
- Day 0 – Dec 24 – Christmas Eve
- Day 1 – Dec 25 – Christmas Day, Birthday of Jesus, Mithras, Attis, Aion, Horus, Dionysus, and The Unconquered Sun.
- Day 2 – Dec 26 – St Stephen’s Day, Boxing Day, Day of the Wren
- Day 3 – Dec 27 – Mother Night, St John’s Day
- Day 4 – Dec 28 – Holy Innocent’s Day, Childremass, Dyzymas Day
- Day 5 – Dec 29 – Feast of Fools
- Day 6 – Dec 30 – Bringing in the Boar
- Day 7 – Dec 31 – New Year’s Eve, Hogmanay
- Day 8 – Jan 1 – New Year’s Day,
- Day 9 – Jan 2 – The Kalends of January
- Day 10: – Jan 3 – Snow Day
- Day 11 – Jan 4 – Evergreen Day
- Day 12 – Jan 5 – Twelfth Night
- Day 13 – Jan 6 – Epiphany,
When researching lore and magicks for the Twelve Days of Christmas I found a lot of disagreement as to the dates. So, from Wikipedia we have this explanation and additional information:
The Twelve Days of Christmas are the festive days beginning Christmas Day (25 December). This period is also known as Christmastide and Twelvetide. The Twelfth Night of Christmas is always on the evening of 5 January, but the Twelfth Day can either precede or follow the Twelfth Night according to which Christian tradition is followed. Twelfth Night is followed by the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January. In some traditions, the first day of Epiphany (6 January) and the twelfth day of Christmas overlap.
Over the centuries, differing churches and sects of Christianity have changed the actual traditions, time frame and their interpretations. St. Stephen’s Day (or Boxing Day), for example, is 26 December in the Western Church and 27 December in the Eastern Church.Boxing Day, on December 26, is observed as a legal holiday in parts of the Commonwealth of Nations. 28 December is Childermas or the Feast of the Innocents.
Currently, the twelve days and nights are celebrated in widely varying ways around the world. For example, some give gifts only on Christmas Day, some only on Twelfth Night, and some each of the twelve nights.
In England in the Middle Ages, this period was one of continuous feasting and merrymaking, which climaxed on Twelfth Night, the traditional end of the Christmas season. In Tudor England, Twelfth Night itself was forever solidified in popular culture when William Shakespeare used it as the setting for one of his most famous stage plays, titled Twelfth Night. Often a Lord of Misrule was chosen to lead the Christmas revels.
Some of these traditions were adapted from the older pagan customs, including the Roman Saturnalia and the Germanic Yuletide. Some also have an echo in modern day pantomime where traditionally authority is mocked and the principal male lead is played by a woman, while the leading older female character, or’Dame’, is played by a man.
Many in the UK and other Commonwealth nations still celebrate some aspects of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Boxing Day (26 December) is a national holiday in many Commonwealth nations, being the first full day of Christmas. Victorian era stories by Charles Dickens (and others), particularly A Christmas Carol, hold key elements of the celebrations such as the consumption of plum pudding, roasted goose and wassail. These foods are consumed more at the beginning of the Twelve Days in the UK.
Twelfth Night is the last day for decorations to be taken down, and it is held to be bad luck to leave decorations up after this. This is in contrast to the custom in Elizabethan England, when decorations were left up until Candlemas; this is still done in some other Western European countries such as Germany.
The traditions of the Twelve Days of Christmas have been largely forgotten in the United States. Contributing factors include the popularity of stories by Charles Dickens in nineteenth-century America (with their emphasis on generous gift-giving), introduction of more secular traditions over the past two centuries (such as the American Santa Claus), and the rise in popularity of New Year’s Eve parties. The first day of Christmas actually terminates the Christmas marketing season for merchants, as shown by the number of “after-Christmas sales” that launch on 26 December. The commercial calendar has encouraged an erroneous assumption that the Twelve Days end on Christmas Day and must therefore begin on 14 December.
Celebrants observing the Twelve Days may give gifts on each of them, with each day of the Twelve Days representing a wish for a corresponding month of the new year. They feast and otherwise celebrate the entire time through Epiphany morning. Lighting a candle for each day has become a modern tradition in the U.S. and of course singing the appropriate verses of the famous song each day is also an important and fun part of the American celebrations. Some also light a Yule Log on the first night (Christmas) and let it burn some each of the twelve nights. Some Americans have their own traditional foods to serve each night.For some, Twelfth Night remains the biggest night forparties and gift-giving. Some households exchange gifts on the first (December 25) and last (January 5) days of the season. As in olden days, Twelfth Night to Epiphany morning is then the traditional time to take down the Christmas tree and decorations.