By Kathryn Brocato, author of Old Christmas
Where did the “Twelve Days of Christmas” come from? We hear about it every year during the Christmas season, usually in the song of the same name.
Actually, the Old Twelve Days began around 1582, when the Catholic countries of Europe switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, which was much more accurate, but given the religious politics of the time, Protestant Europe refused to switch because they didn’t want the pope telling them what to do.
Two-hundred years later, in 1752, England finally switched to the Gregorian calendar, but since the difference in the two calendars had rendered England 11 days off the rest of Europe, officials simply dropped those 11 days and moved Christmas from January 6 to December 25.
Big riots resulted among the English people, who believed someone had “stolen” those 11 days, and many refused to switch, including a lot of English people who moved to America. Most of them became rural farm dwellers, and they held to the old dates and celebrations for many years. In Southeast Texas, many old farmers of British and Scottish heritage, celebrated Old Christmas on January 6 rather than the new-fangled Christmas on December 25, and many magical beliefs and legends grew up around the idea of the “true” Christmas on January 6.
Country dwellers believed that Old Christmas was so powerful fig trees would bud, even if the buds were covered with ice, and if you went and looked, you could see the cracks in the ice from where the bud had swollen and showed signs of growth. Elder bushes were said to bloom on Old Christmas Eve, even in the snow.
Animals were also powerfully affected on Old Christmas Eve. At the hour of midnight, cattle and horses would kneel down in their straw and roosters would crow out of respect for the Christ child.
People are affected too. On Old Christmas Eve, spirits walk the earth. It was this aspect of Old Christmas that the poet Roy Helton immortalized in his poem, “Old Christmas Morning.” I found the idea of Old Christmas so magical that I incorporated it in my first Crimson Contemporary Romance, Old Christmas.
The Old Twelve Days comes from the 12 days, beginning on December 25 until January 6, Old Christmas Day. Old country folks believed that you could get a prediction of the weather of each month in the year to come by monitoring the state of the weather during the Old Twelve Days. A rainy December 25, for instance, meant a rainy January, and a clear and sunny December 26 meant a nice February.
Many old-timers gave lip-service to the mainstream celebration of Christmas on December 25, but since they knew the truth about the real date of Christmas, they would gift their loved ones with twelve gifts, one for each of the twelve days of Christmas, often saving the most important gift for Old Christmas day.
The truth is we probably still don’t know the exact historical date when Christ was born, but the magic of Christmas remains, whether you celebrate it on December 25 or on the old date of January 6.
What are some of your favorite holiday traditions and legends? Share them in the comments!