12 Days of Christmas are not the 12 days before Christmas but the 12 days after, running from December 25th to January 5th (although in some traditions the twelve days run from December 26 to January 6th). It culminates with the Feast of Epiphany, which commemorates the time when the Wise Men present gifts to the young Jesus, who may have been as old as two years old at the time (the Bible's not clear how long it takes them to track Jesus down). Some households (such as ours) celebrate Christmastide by giving gifts on all of the 12 days, but this is more the exception than the rule.
When most people hear "The 12 Days of Christmas," however, they probably think of the song:
- On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... "A Partridge in a Pear Tree."
- On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... "Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree."
- On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... Three French Hens, Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.
- On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... Four Colly Birds (some versions using "mockingbirds" or "calling birds"), Three French Hens, Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree . . .
- And so on until the 12th verse. . .
- On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... Twelve Drummers Drumming, Eleven Pipers Piping, Ten Lords-a-Leaping, Nine Ladies Dancing, Eight Maids-a-Milking, Seven Swans-a-Swimming, Six Geese-a-Laying, Five Gold Rings, Four Colly Birds, Three French Hens, Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.
The song's origin is unclear, but one story that has little historical support but is still fun to consider is that it originated as a Catholic "Catechism Song" in England during a time when Catholicism was "discouraged" (1558-1829). According to this tradition,
- The "true love" in the song refers to God, while the "me" refers to those who receive the gifts mentioned in the song from God
- The "partridge in a pear tree" refers to Jesus Christ whose death on a tree (i.e., the cross) was a gift from God
- The "two turtle doves" refer to the Old and New Testaments - another gift from God
- The "three French hens" refer to "faith," "hope" and "love" three gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 13)
- The "four calling birds" refer to the four Gospels, which sing "the song of salvation through Jesus Christ"
- The "five golden rings" refer to the first five books of the Old Testament, also known as the Torah.
- The "six geese a-laying" refer to the six days of creation
- The "seven swans a swimming" refer to the "seven gifts of the Holy Spirit." (1 Corinthians 12:8-11)
- The "eight maids a milking" refer to the eight beatitudes
- The "nine ladies dancing" refer to the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23)
- The "ten lords a-leaping" refer to the Ten Commandments
- The "eleven pipers piping" refer to the eleven faithful disciples
- The "twelve drummers drumming" refer to the twelve points of the Apostles' Creed
For a more scholarly (but almost certainly less entertaining) take on the song's origins see the Wikipedia article on the topic.