Our ancestors used the moon to know the weeks and seasons. But one odd knock-on effect of a lunar calendar is you wind up with eleven extra days (called an “epact”). A gift, of course! The ancients conceived of this unappropriated time as a small tear or rift in the created world—a little pocket in the Cosmos. So naturally, in the northern hemisphere, they placed the extra days at the time of year when days are shortest: the Winter Solstice. The recognition of the darkest night extended into twelve days of feasting, bonfires, and merriment—rejoicing as the span of daylight began to lengthen.
The ubiquitous holiday rhyme, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” uses imagery from just such a feast beginning with seven days of fowl, poultry, and their eggs: the provision of forest, field, and farm. Next comes delectable dairy via the eight maids: milk, cream, cheeses, and butter. These represent the richest foods imaginable to our ancient mothers and fathers. Then come the revelers themselves: dancing ladies and leaping lords, celebrating fertility and a hope for spring to come again—and soon. Lastly, musicians—pipers and drummers—and a whole lot of them!
Before the middle ages, scholars from the east brought teachings from a new sort of reformed Judaism that had exploded throughout the Mediterranean and been amplified by the might of the Roman Empire. When these early Christians learned of the tear in the Cosmos that turned the deepening darkness into light—and the hope of salvation—they were quick to locate the mass of the Messiah during this grand feast. And so, by the time our joyous carol emerges, the dozen days have become Christmas, stretching from the end of Advent all the way to Epiphany.
There are many ways to sing the song and many things to mean by it. For us, the twelve days are the most lovely time of the year. We visit dear friends and family, open our best wine and spirits, sing merry songs (including this one) and gorge ourselves on the most succulent foods and sweets. We exchange gifts and extend whatever bounty we have to our neighbors and the poor. It’s also a wonderful time to meditate on the stories and traditions that anticipate and respond to the Nativity.
I made these illustrations as a meditation during a blizzard in 2021, drawing one each day of Christmas. In my research, I learned all sorts of interesting trivia (for instance, the four birds were likely “coal-ey birds” or blackbirds in the original rendering but evolved over the centuries into our “calling birds”) but was particularly captivated by the many ways the rhyme has been imagined as a catechism for faithful Christians. On each card, I’ve suggested an idea corresponding to the number of the day in the song. Feel free to add your own, of course, but I’ve found these simple meditations to be a rich feast indeed. Merry Christmas!