Everyone knows the famous English Christmas carol The 12 Days of Christmas, which was first published (without music) in 1780 but is generally believed to be French in origin.
The Twelve Days are, in fact, the Christian season celebrating the Nativity of Jesus.
In most Western traditions, Christmas Day is considered the “First Day of Christmas” and the Twelve Days are 25 December – 5 January, inclusive. For many Christian denominations; for example, the Anglican Communion and Lutheran Church, the Twelve Days are identical to Christmastide but for others, such as the Roman Catholic Church, “Christmastide” lasts longer – much longer.
First, Catholics celebrate the octave (or eight days) of Christmas.
This means that there are eight official solemn (‘solemn’ as in ‘extremely important’ not ‘serious’) days of rejoicing.
For Catholics, therefore, the 12 Days of Christmas are the Christmas Octave plus the four that take us up to the Feast of the Epiphany. Actually, the Christmas season (also known as Christmastide) lasts 40 days.
It begins with the vigil Mass said on Christmas Eve, and ends on 2 February, Candlemas, which is the day on which we celebrate the feast of Jesus’ presentation in the temple.
This is because, after Easter, the Feast of Christmas is so important. Without God becoming one of us (the Incarnation) there is no Redemption of a fallen humanity, nor the victory of Easter for all time.