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The Twelve Days after Christmas

December 26, 2011
This column is an excerpt from Kirk H. Neely’s new book
Santa Almost Got Caught: Stories for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year.


Is there anything as over as Christmas when it’s over? Colorful wrapping paper and bright ribbons are reduced to trash as quickly as gifts are torn open. Fresh green trees that have graced our homes begin to drop needles until they are discarded like fallen soldiers. Decorations are packed away in the basement, the attic, or the garage until next year.

Christmas is over!

In the week following Christmas, we may become preoccupied with exchanges, housecleaning, and bill paying. No wonder the days after Christmas mark a mood swing from the season to be jolly to a time of despair.

The post-Christmas season can be a time of blessed relief. For those who enjoy gardening, the postman brings not only bills and tax forms, but also seed and plant catalogues. The days between Christmas and New Year’s give us time for reflection on the year gone by and the year ahead. Opening a new calendar can be an opportunity to plan, marking birthdays, anniversaries, vacations, and other special occasions. Avid football fans have bowl games stretching non-stop into the forseeable future.

December 26th is Boxing Day. It is a time to give gifts to the people upon whose service we depend all year – those who deliver our newspaper, bag and carry groceries for us, clean our offices, and service our automoblies.

In the old English tradition, the twelve days of Christmas are the days between Christmas Day and Epiphany.  The first is December 26th, which is St. Stephen’s Day.   The twelfth is January 6th, which is Epiphany. The twelve days after Christmas provide an opportunity to extend the holidays by giving gifts to those we love. 

The song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is based on this traditional season of gift-giving.  The gifts given on the first day are repeated on all twelve days. By January 6th, the recipient would have a total of twelve partridges and twelve pear trees.  By the twelfth day, the beloved would have received 376 gifts, including 184 birds.

If we assume a partridge in a pear tree is given only on the first day, the monetary value in 2006 dollars would be as follows:

  • One partridge in a pear tree @ $104.99  ($15 partridge; $89.99 pear tree)
  • Two turtledoves @ $20 each = $40
  • Three French hens @ $15 each = $45
  • Four calling birds @ $99.99 each = $399.96
  • Five golden rings @ $65 each = $325
  • Six geese a-laying @ $50 each = $300
  • Seven swans a-swimming @ $600 each = $4,200
  • Eight maids a-milking @ $5.15 each = $41.20
  • Nine ladies dancing @ $508.40 each = $4,576.14
  • Ten lords a-leaping @ $403.91 each = $4,039.10
  • Eleven pipers piping @ $186.66 each = $2,053.20
  • Twelve drummers drumming @ $185.36 each = $2,224.30

These prices include minimum wage for the maids a-milking for one hour, and union wages for the musicians and dancers for one hour.  The total price would be $18,348.87.  If 376 gifts are given, the total would be $72,608.02.

Some Christians believe that the song was a catechism in disguise, used by English Catholics to teach their children during Puritan rule in Britain.

  • The partridge in a pear tree means there is only one God.
  • The two turtledoves are the Old and New Testament.
  • The three French hens symbolize the trinity.
  • The four calling birds are the four gospels.
  • Five golden rings are the first five books of the Bible, the Torah.
  • Six geese a-laying refer to the six days of creation.
  • Seven swans a-swimming are the seven sacraments.
  • Eight maids a-milking are the eight beatitudes.
  • Nine ladies dancing are the fruits of the Holy Spirit.
  • Ten lords a-leaping represent the Ten Commandments.
  • Eleven pipers piping are the eleven faithful apostles.
  • Twelve drummers drumming are the twelve doctrines in the Apostle’s Creed.

All trivia aside, the twelve days after Christmas can have a deeper meaning.

When we lived in North Carolina, a young father stricken by leukemia, a member of the congregation I served, was hospitalized for several weeks just before Christmas. Because Jim’s immune system was compromised, his physician did not want him to be with his three small children. When I visited with him on Christmas Day, his disease was in remission and he was looking forward to being discharged from the hospital. “We’re going to have Christmas when I get home,” he said in anticipation.

Jim left the hospital two days later. He and his wife gave each child one present every day for the next week or so. Spreading out the gifts conserved the Jim’s energy, and enabled the family to extend Christmas into the New Year. Sadly,  Jim died later that same year.

This year, in early December, I spoke with Jim’s daughter, now an adult with children of her own. “I remember that Christmas, the last one with my daddy, as the best one ever. Instead of the whole thing suddenly being over, Christmas seemed to last and last.”

The twelve days after Christmas need not be a season of despair. In the afterglow of Christmas, joy and peace go with us into the New Year.


Kirk H. Neely
© December 2006




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