When does the 12 days of Christmas start and what are the 12 gifts?

When does the 12 days of Christmas start? Plus, what are the gifts in the 12 days of Christmas song and if you were to buy them, how much would they cost?

Christmas lights on a tree and Christmas wreath in a window

The 12 days of Christmas, otherwise known as Twelvetide, is a Christian religious celebration that's based around the Nativity of Jesus. You'll probably know the famous Christmas song already, but do you know when the 12 days of Christmas starts or what the tradition is behind the celebration and gifts?

December is here (how did that happen?) which means it's time to take out the matching Christmas pyjamas (opens in new tab), set about making our own Christmas wreathes (opens in new tab) and debate about how early we can put up the Christmas decorations this year. But it also means the 12 days of Christmas are almost ready to start, and with plenty of gifts to go around over the festive season, maybe these are the ones that you should be giving?

Christians believe that the 12 days of Christmas signify the amount of time that it took the wise men to travel to Bethlehem for the Epiphany after Jesus was born, when recognised him as the son of God.

When does the 12 days of Christmas start?

The 12 days of Christmas begin on Christmas Day, December 25, and last right through until January 6, also known as Three Kings' Day or Epiphany.

The period has been celebrated since before the middle ages but was updated over time to include prominent figures in Christian history.

Each day has a particular significance and is used as an opportunity to remember a significant person or event in the Christian religion. This is what each day means...

  • Day One (Christmas Day): Celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.
  • Day Two (Boxing Day or St Stephen's Day): Remembering the first martyr of Christianity, St Stephen.
  • Day Three: Celebrates St John the Apostle who is the patron saint of love, loyalty, friendships, authors, booksellers, burn-victims, poison-victims, art-dealers, editors, publishers, scribes, examinations, scholars and theologians. He also wrote the Book of Revelation.
  • Day Four (Feast of the Holy Innocents):  The day to remember all the babies killed by King Herod in his attempt to murder baby Jesus.
  • Day Five: Remembers the Archbishop of Canterbury, St Thomas Becket, who was murdered because he challenged the king's authority over the church.
  • Day Six: Celebrates St Egwin of Worcester who is known as the protector of orphans and the widowed and died in 717.
  • Day Seven (New Years Eve): Pope Sylvester I is celebrated on this day as he saw in the beginning of the Christian Roman Empire.
  • Day Eight (New Years Day): Celebrates Mary, the mother of Jesus.
  • Day Nine: Honours two important Christians, St Basil the Great and St Gregory Nazianzen from the 4th century.
  • Day Ten (Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus): This day celebrates when Jesus was named in the Jewish Temple.
  • Day Eleven: Celebrates St Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American saint who lived during the 1700s. It also celebrates the Feast of Saint Simeon Stylites, who lived on a small platform on top of a pillar for 37 years to escape unwanted attention.
  • Day Twelve (Epiphany Eve): So called because it's January 5, the day before Epiphany.

Much like other seasonal traditions, such as giving chocolate eggs at Easter (opens in new tab) in the UK, the event is celebrated all around the world in many wonderfully different ways. France, for example, has a tradition where children put shoes in front of the chimneys in their homes and hope that Santa, also known as Père Noël, will fill them with sweet treats.

boy waits for Santa to come down the chimney in France

Credit: Getty

While in Italy on January 6, one of the most important days of the celebration, markets are set up in cities around the country selling small presents, snacks, fruits and other festive foods. It's also an important time for celebrating in Sweden, but their main celebration is held a little earlier than the 12 day period on December 13. Girls will wear red sashes and crowns decorated with lingonberry branches as they represent new beginnings and people will traditionally eat cold fish.

the Christmas Market in Florence, part of the 12 days of Christmas tradition

Credit: Getty

What are the 12 gifts of the 12 days of Christmas?

The song that most people are familiar with today is called 'The 12 Day of Christmas' and contains a variety of gifts mentioned in the lyrics from partridges to gold rings and drummers drumming.

three French hens - one of the gifts in the 12 days of Christmas

Credit: Getty

The 12 gifts of the 12 days of Christmas:

  • One partridge in a pear tree
  • Two turtle doves
  • Three French hens
  • Four calling birds
  • Five gold rings
  • Six geese a-laying
  • Seven swans a-swimming
  • Eight maids a-milking
  • Nine ladies dancing
  • Ten lords a-leaping
  • Eleven pipers piping
  • Twelve drummers drumming


But how does the song connect to the origin of the 12 days of Christmas and Christianity? Rumour has it that the '12 days of Christmas' song was used by worshippers when Christians were being punished for their religion as a way to discreetly pass on the message of Christianity.

The theory is that each of the gifts symbolise a different aspect of the Christian religion with the partridge in the pear tree representing Jesus and the two turtle doves signifying the Old and New Testament. The three French hens are Faith, Hope and Charity, while the four calling birds are the four gospels. The five golden rings are reportedly the first five books of the Old Testament, the six geese represent the six days of creation, the seven swans are the gifts of the Holy Spirit, while the eight maids are the eight blessings given by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. The nine ladies dancing are the nine different fruits of the Holy Spirit and the ten lords are the Ten Commandments, the eleven pipers represent the eleven faithful apostles and finally...the twelve drummers drumming are the twelve points of the doctrine in the Apostle's Creed.

They might not be the top Christmas gifts for 2020 (opens in new tab) though, as to buy all these presents it would certainly set you back a bit. This year, according to PNC financial services groups' annual Christmas Prince Index (opens in new tab), to buy all of the gifts in the song would set you back over £29,000. Or if you want to be very specific about it and total up each of the 364 individual items mentioned in the song, it would come to a HUGE £127,559.18 with the latest dollar to pound conversion rates.

The most expensive item would be the seven swans at almost £10,000.