The festival referring to the twelve days of Christmas did not originally precede the Christmas holiday celebration. Instead, the celebration seems to have its roots founded in an traditional festival of the ancient Babylonian people called Zagmuk where there was a serious of gift offerings and exchanges made until Twelfth Night. Once Epiphany or Twelfth Night was past, the traditional end of the Christmas season was over.
Traditionally, during the twelve days of Christmas, the period was filled with continuous feasting and merrymaking that led to traditional roles being relaxed. The Lord of Misrule was often appointed to preside over the festivities and the rules that normally maintained order in the communities were turned upside-down. For instance under the Lord of Misrule’s guiding hand masters would serve their slaves and public positions could be held by slaves during the twelve days of Christmas. Men and women often dressed in costumes of the other gender and performed pantomimes that mocked the traditional authority.
The song The Twelve Days of Christmas seems to reinforce the gift giving history of the festivities. The song is written in a cumulative style which means that with each subsequent verse the giver of the gifts gives something new and regives everything previously given. This structure makes the song The Twelve Days of Christmas a fun memory game for adults and children alike throughout the holiday season. When counted, if one assumes that on each day of the twelve days of Christmas the gifts are given, there is a total of 364 gifts given in total. To compute this, one would count 12 partridges, 22 turtle doves, 30 french hens and so on. Of course if you count the pear tree as a gift, since it is delivered with the partridge each time, it would raise the number of gifts given to 376. It is interesting to note that of the 364 gifts, 184 of them are birds. Just for fun, almost yearly an economist will compute the total cost for all the gifts as adjusted for the Christmas Price Index, in 2005 the computed the total cost for all the gifts mentioned in the song for the 364 gifts as being $72,608.02. The numbers of the gifts or their cost do not seem to have any particular historical significance and can only be seen as a random piece of Christmas trivia.
Christians have been known to arbitrarily assign religious symbolism to the gifts and this has led to some believing that the song was written during the religious prohibition of the 1600s. Most historians, however, agree that the evidence is does not support of that assertion and instead maintain it is an old and traditional form of the urban legend.
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