You know the song – but do you know when it starts or finishes and why?  What are the real 12 days of Christmas?

Everyone knows the song and it has been sung by groups as wide ranging as Relient K to the Muppets. First recorded in a children’s book published in London around 1780, it has been an earworm ever since.  But do you know the meaning behind it?  What are the real 12 days of Christmas?  Europe and the US differ in celebrations.

The Fresh Toast – You know the song – but do you know when it starts? What are the real 12 days of Christmas.

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The 12 days of Christmas is the period during the holiday marking the span between the birth of Christ and the coming of the Magi, the three wise men. It begins on December 25 (Christmas) and runs through January 6 (the Epiphany, sometimes also called Three Kings’ Day). Advent, and the commercial advent calendars providing everything from Legos to chocolates to buzz is a different set of dates. The four weeks preceding Christmas are collectively known as Advent, which begins four Sundays before Christmas and ends on December 24.

The 12 days of Christmas ends at Epiphany (in the old South called Old Christmas). Epiphany is a Christian feast day falling on 6 January. It is when many Christians believe the Maji (also known as the Three kings or the Wise Men) followed the star to visit the newly born baby Jesus.  Epiphany become a declared a holiday as it comes from the Greek word meaning to reveal and it is the day when the baby Jesus was revealed to the world.  It is also called Three Kings Day.

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In the 6th century, the Catholic Church declared the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany (i.e. to just before midnight 5 January as Epiphany begins 6 January) as a sacred and festive season, and established the duty of Advent fasting in preparation for the feast. In modern times, Advent is known mostly through calendars providing little gifts.

In the United States, Christmas Day and Christmas Eve are the big celebrations. In Europe, while there is still the excitement over the 24th and 25th, Epiphany is also a big time for a feast, family and joy.

In Italy, good children receive gifts not only on Christmas, but also on January 6th, in celebration of the Epiphany. Usually candies and small toys, these are whimsically said to be brought by La Befana, a kindly witch riding a broomstick.  For naughty children she leaves just a lump of coal.

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In France, the 6th of January is ‘l’Epiphanie’ or ‘la journée des rois’ commemorates the visit of the three wise men to baby Jesus. It’s traditional in France to eat ‘la Galette des Rois’. French people will go to the bakery to buy this king’s cake or make it themselves.  Games and a crown are involved in the cake celebration and laughter should be generously added to the evening.

Both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Catholic Church celebrate on 6 January, as opposed their feud over Easter.

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