In parts of Italy, it is at Epiphany, not on Christmas Day, that children get their presents — delivered by a witch called Befana by broomstick last night.
Befana is a much magled form of Epifania — the Italian form of Epiphany — and she almost certainly evolved from the Pagan Goddess Strenia, who presided over the presents given at the New Year. (It also gives us Tiffany).
Meanwhile, in the Orthodox Church, today is Christmas…
In Britain and America, however, Epiphany — which also happens to be the twelfth day of Christmas, that is to say “Twelfth Night” — is often entirely neglected now, though once, when the twelve days were kept with full festivity, it was a big event — so big, it even got a Shakespearian play named after it.
The fabled “Twelve Days of Christmas” have their roots in the Norse Jól, and were originally kept between December 20th and the 31st.
They also have very prosiac origins; at this darkest time of the year, with the harvest gathered in, animals slaughtered, and crops requiring sowing in the autumn sowed, there really wasn’t much that needed doing – making it a perfect time for relaxing, and enjoying the year’s produce while it was still fresh.
I’ve always felt it rather sad that while the shops start celebrating the Midwinter festivals in the summer, and many people can’t wait to get their decorations out at the start of December — sometimes even in November, as soon as the New Year comes, it all gets put away, even though this is the traditional period for still celebrating.
Growing up, my family was one of the few who did keep Twelfth Night, making a special event of the last day of the tree. We still do.
One of our little traditions is that as we take down the decorations, we always sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
Unfortately, the gifts sent on each of the days aren’t that name-worthy in their own right, but they do suggest those that are.
And so, to mark the occasion, here are my ideas:
On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me,
A partridge in a pear-tree
Airi, Alula, Apion, Betrisen, Ena, Enas, Li, Madaria, Mia, Pear, Pera, Perdiz, Pernice, Perina, Perry, Piro, Primula, Primus, Rika, Una
On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me,
Two turtle doves
Aphrodite, Callum, Colm, Colmán, Columba, Columbine, Dove, Dovie, Duo, Jemima, Jonah, Mimi, Paloma, Peleia, Secunda, Secundus, Thania, Trygon, Tuvi, Venus
On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me,
Three French hens
Chuck, Frances, Francesca, Francis, Frank, Hen, Talitha, Tertia, Tertius, Tertulla, Thrima, Tria, Trinity, Triskele, Trystine, Wren
On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me,
Four colly birds,
Aderyn, Amsel, Bird, Chogan, Colly, Deryn, Lonan, Merle, Merula, Quatro, Quartilla, Quartus, Tessera, Tesseres
On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me
Five gold rings
Aranka, Aurea, Cinq, Cressida, Cyclamen, Eliphaz, Golden, Kirk, Marigold, Morgan, Orla, Quinque, Quintilla, Quintus, Sovann, Sunakai, Suwan
On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me
Six geese a-laying
Anser, Antzara, Gander, Goshawk, Gossamer, Gus, Guska, Hani, Hex, Liba, Sextilla, Sextus, Zoss
On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me
Seven swans a-swimming
Cygne, Cygnet, Cygnus, Ella, Gulbė, Iswan, Joutsen, Leda, Luik, Odette, Septima, Septimus, Seven, Swan, Swanilda
On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me
Eight maids a-milking
Aludra, Cora, Corinna, Galatea, Impi, Meinir, Octavia, Octavian, Octavius, Octo, Parthenia, Virginia, Virgo
On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me
Nine ladies dancing
Anassa, Beletili, Caryatis, Ceilidh, Cordax, Creusa, Damsel, Dominique, Dominy, Donna, Jive, Lady, Madonna, Martha, Nephthys, Nina, Nona, Nonus, Nostradamus
On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me
Ten lords a-leaping
Adonai, Anaxandra, Anaxander, Baal, Caderyn, Cyril, Deacon, Decima, Decimus, Dinesh, Dominic, Don, Doyen, Edwen, Lapwing, Lord, Marquis, Meredith, Murdoch, Ner, Nerys, Rakesh, Ramnath, Sacheverell, Tiernan, Tierney
On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me
Eleven pipers piping
Aule, Auletes, Auletris, Aulus, Endeka, Doucet, Fife, Flauta, Fletna, Flute, Fretel, Ney, Onze, Pan, Pfeifer, Piper, Quena, Subulo, Tibiae, Tibicen, Tibicina, Undecima, Undecimus
On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me
Twelve drummers drumming
Baraban, Boben, Davul, Drummer, Duodecima, Duodecima, Nagara, Ngoma, Rebana, Tabala, Tambor, Tambour, Timbrel, Trommel, Trumm, Typanon
What meanings lie behind the strange gifts have not been satisfactorily elucidated. Some Catholics claim they arose as a catechism to help teach tenets of Catholicism in England after the Reformation, but there is no proof of this, and it is more likely its roots are far older. I prefer the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes’ interpretation:
Suggestions have been made that the gifts have significance, as representing the food or sport for each month of the year. Importance [certainly has] long been attached to the Twelve Days, when, for instance, the weather on each day was carefully observed to see what it would be in the corresponding month of the coming year. Nevertheless, whatever the ultimate origin of the chant, it seems probable [that] the lines that survive today both in England and France are merely an irreligious travesty.
Happy Twelfth Night!