I’m always searching out forgotten holiday traditions, and one of my favorites that I am trying to revive is the custom of honoring the Twelve Days of Christmas. Some scholars believe the Twelve Days start on Christmas Day and end on January 5 with Twelfth Night. Others (including me) observe them from December 26 through January 6, Epiphany.
But it has been suggested that originally the Twelve Days spanned the time between the new moon closest to the Solstice (this would be during the time of Hanukkah) and the first full moon of the new year, or perhaps the time between Saint Lucy’s Day (December 13) and New Year’s Day.
Shakespeare called the Twelve Days the Halcyon Days, from a belief that the ocean was so calm on these days that the halcyon bird could lay her eggs on the waves. Like the Halcyon Days, these are days when normal activities are deferred. In medieval England, all work was suspended during the Christmas holidays. Women could not begin spinning again until January 7, the day after Twelfth Night, which was called Saint Distaff’s Day.
According to Germanic tradition, the goddess Holle, dressed all in white, rides the wind in a wagon on the Twelve Days of Christmas. During this time, no wheels could turn: no spinning, no milling, no wagons (sleighs were used instead). Holle punished those who disobeyed the taboo.
Supposedly, each of the Twelve Days predicts what the weather will be like for the corresponding month of the year (that is, the first day foreshadows the weather in January, etc.).
In Wales, the days were considered “omen” days. In Scotland, no court had power during the Twelve Days. The Irish believed that anyone who died during these days escaped Purgatory and went straight to Heaven.
In Babylon, the twelve intercalary days between the Winter Solstice and the new year were seen as a time of struggle between chaos and order, with chaos trying to take back over the world. Other cultures (Hindu, Chinese, Celtic) also viewed this as a time for reversing order and rules.
Whatever time period you choose to observe, it seems clear that the idea is to take some time away from your normal activities and enjoy what I call Time Out of Time. No rules, no restrictions, no routine. I like to spend the Twelve Days of Christmas in reflection on the year past and dreaming about the new year. This is a powerful time for change as we drift in the space between the old year and the new one.
Waverly Fitzgerald is a writer, teacher, and calendar priestess who has studied the lore of holidays and the secrets of time for decades. She shares her research and her thoughts on her Living in Season website and in her book, Slow Time. She is currently working on a series of essays about looking for nature in the city and blogs for the Seattle PI as the “Urban Naturalist.”