Several years ago I discovered a delightful little book called The Jane Austen Handbook: Proper Life Skills from Regency England, full of tidbits and instructions about life in Austen’s day. (Side note: if you’re a Jane Austen fan you should seriously consider getting it.)
However, the chapter that captured my attention most was the last: “How to celebrate Christmas in a country house”. In it, I discovered for the first time in my life what the “12 Days of Christmas” actually were: the 12 days of feasting and celebration that mark the Christmas season; that is from Christmas Day to the eve of the Epiphany on 6 January. (In the Western calendar, the Epiphany marks the arrival of the Three Wise Men to visit baby Jesus.)
According to the book, Christians in Regency times didn’t begin celebrations until Christmas Day, and then the feasting continued until the Epiphany.
This struck me because I’ve always felt that waking up on Boxing Day is the strangest experience. You spend a month, perhaps longer, preparing for something that’s over in a single day. Every single Boxing Day I wake up feeling flat and a bit sad, like something’s wrong. It feels as though the celebrations should continue, but they’ve suddenly stopped.
Moreover as a Catholic, the season of Advent (the four weeks leading up to Christmas Day) is intended to be penitential or sacrificial, like a miniature Lent, to spiritually prepare for the Nativity. For this reason, I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable celebrating Christmas parties prior to Christmas. I should be fasting, but instead I’m feasting. It’s always felt back to front.
As a result, reading about the 12 Days of Christmas was a revelation! We think we party hard now – the English partied for 12 straight days, during which time presents would be distributed, as opposed to specifically on Christmas Day. This is how their 12 days of celebration were laid out (according to the book):
- December 25, Christmas Day: Go to church in the morning, and put a little extra in the poor box for tomorrow. Later in the day, enjoy a turkey dinner (the Christmas goose is a later tradition). Most people will stay at home with their families on Christmas Day, so do not expect a large party after dinner, but you still can have games and other fun activities.
- December 26, Boxing Day: Give out boxes of food and clothing to the tenants. It also is traditional to give the servants a holiday bonus. The contents of the church poor box will be distributed to the needy, including your extra contribution from the day before; it is hoped that you were generous! There might be a fox hunt put on somewhere in the neighbourhood; take part if that is your thing.
- December 27-30: There will be parties and gatherings at home or at nearby houses almost every night. Gentlemen will dance all night and then rise early for sport, but ladies can get their beauty rest and then spend the afternoon touring the countryside in a low phaeton. Evening activities can include games, charades, amateur theatricals, or dancing and music.
- December 31: See in the New Year at midnight with drink and song, should auld acquaintance be forgot. If you like, get caught under the mistletoe.
- January 1: Recover from the previous night’s activities and rest up for more partying.
- January 2-5: More social gatherings and family activities. If it is cold enough, there might be sleighing or ice skating during the day, and balls and parties in the evening.
- January 6, Twelfth Night: This is the traditional day for the exchange of gifts, but gifts can be given at any time throughout the holiday season or even over several days. At night there will likely be a large ball somewhere in the neighbourhood to which the children of the house might be invited along with the grown-ups.
- January 7: Take down the decorations (it is unlucky to leave them up longer) and say goodbye to your guests.
If you’re anything like me – this is all incredibly appealing! In fact, when I first read this I was so inspired I decided to see if I could dredge up the tradition.
I created a Facebook event simply called the 12 Days of Christmas, inviting guests to “host a day” or at least an event on a day, and to my delight people really got into it!
As I live in the southern hemisphere, there were more barbecues and tennis games than fox hunts or warm nights by the fire.
However, the first year I threw a Christmas carols party, in which we gathered by the Christmas tree and sang all night. Another year my housemates and I hosted a board games night. This proved to be such a hit we continued to do it for several more years, as an annual tradition.
There were outings to the beach, cricket matches and simple house parties. After the first year or two, I didn’t have the time or the energy to organise the 12 Days again, so I let go of the reins and hoped someone else would take them up.
And someone did. And the following year, another person did. And another. It has continued on each year since I first began, and has taken on a life of its own. Apart from how wonderful it is to see a beautiful old tradition taken up and restored, it has been incredibly humbling for me to see my enthusiasm shared by so many, which leads me to believe that there is just something about the Christmas season. People really want to celebrate it! And celebrate properly.
As such I think it’s a tragedy that the 12 Days of Christmas tradition was lost, and I for one am extremely keen to see it come back to life.
So this is an invitation and an encouragement from me to you to start your own 12 Days of Christmas. It doesn’t have to be in your extended community, but it can be. It could be in your parish, or your extended family, or perhaps even just with a few of your friends.
If you know people who plan to host a Christmas party during Advent, encourage them to host it after Christmas as part of the 12 Days. The possibilities for events to celebrate the season are endless!
And honestly – who really wants Christmas to be over?