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

Ever wondered how much it would cost you to buy all 12 gifts?

Two candy canes in the shape of a heart with a Christmas tree in the background
(Image credit: Getty Images)

You'll probably know the famous Christmas song already, but do you know when does the 12 days of Christmas starts or what the tradition is behind the celebration?

December is here (how did that happen?) which means it's time to take out the matching Christmas pyjamas, snap up the best Christmas jumpers, set about making your own Christmas wreathes and preparing (or purchasing) the best Christmas food. 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, are these the ones you should be giving?

The 12 days of Christmas, otherwise known as Twelvetide, is a Christian religious celebration that's based around the Nativity of Jesus. Christians believe that the 12 days 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. Keep reading to find out when the 12 days of Christmas start and what each of the gifts are...

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.

Most people know the 12 days of Christmas from the song- and the odd Christmas joke - that lists the different gifts. The first printed appearance of the song was in the English children's book Mirth With-out Mischief, which was published in 1780 - though some of the lyrics were slightly different. Most historians believe the Christmas Carol started out as a memory game.

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

  1. One partridge in a pear tree
  2. Two turtle doves
  3. Three French hens
  4. Four calling birds
  5. Five gold rings
  6. Six geese a-laying
  7. Seven swans a-swimming
  8. Eight maids a-milking
  9. Nine ladies dancing
  10. Ten lords a-leaping
  11. Eleven pipers piping
  12. 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.

Christmas presents under a tree

(Image credit: Alamy)

According to PNC financial services groups' annual Christmas Prince Index, to buy all of the gifts in the song would set you back over £35,000. Or if you want to be very specific and work out the total cost of all the gifts when you count each repetition of the song - that's 364 individual items - it would come to a huge £165,188.18 with the latest dollar to pound conversion rates. The most expensive item would be the seven swans at roughly £11,000.

What do each of the 12 days of Christmas mean?

  • 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.

How are the 12 days of Christmas celebrated?

Much like other seasonal traditions, such as giving chocolate eggs at Easter in the UK, the event is celebrated all around the world in many wonderfully different ways. 

For example, 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. 

In Tudor England, when the tradition first started, people would fast for the four weeks leading up to Christmas and then enjoy 12 days of religious celebrations, feasting and entertainments.

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Grace Walsh
Features Writer

Grace Walsh is a Features Writer for Goodto.com, covering breaking news health stories during the Covid-19 pandemic as well as lifestyle and entertainment topics.  She has worked in media since graduating from the University of Warwick in 2019 with a degree in Classical Civilisation and a year spent abroad in Italy. It was here that Grace caught the bug for journalism, after becoming involved in the university’s student newspaper and radio station.