Retired Okanagan College professor and storyteller Les Ellenor shares not always pleasant history behind the Twelve Days Of Christmas. (Barb Brouwer photo)                                Retired Okanagan College professor and storyteller Les Ellenor shares a not always pleasant history behind the Twelve Days Of Christmas. (Barb Brouwer photo)

Retired Okanagan College professor and storyteller Les Ellenor shares not always pleasant history behind the Twelve Days Of Christmas. (Barb Brouwer photo) Retired Okanagan College professor and storyteller Les Ellenor shares a not always pleasant history behind the Twelve Days Of Christmas. (Barb Brouwer photo)

Waiting for the sun: a historical look at the Twelve Days of Christmas

Salmon Arm’s Les Ellenor breaks down the 12 days and their significance

Barb Brouwer

Contributor

Many are familiar with the lively Twelve Days Of Christmas as penned by Frederic Austen in 1909.

But the Twelve Days Of Christmas or Yuletide, explains retired Okanagan College professor and inveterate storyteller Les Ellenor, was instituted by the Medieval Roman Catholic Church in 560 AD at the Church Council of Tours in France.

With the entire Roman Empire already celebrating Saturnalia on Dec. 25, the day they believed was winter solstice, Pope Julian I decided it would be the right day to celebrate Christmas as well.

“Christians were appalled because it was a drunken riot,” said Ellenor, who notes the Roman Catholic Church calendar dedicated every day to a saint, with the Twelve Days of Christmas beginning on Dec. 26 and ending on Jan. 6.

“Yuletide was a really happy time when you were allowed to break the rules and you could be foolish.”

Ellenor pointed out how December was a time of fear for the pagan population who had no idea if the sun would return. “Workers were given a rest complete with food and drink as long as the yule log was burning, a time of rituals, meaning and spirituality.”

There are no gold rings, lords a leaping, or ladies dancing in the original celebration, but each day of Christmastide had a profound effect on the lives of all people in Christendom, who had a holiday from work.

On Day 1, Dec. 26, the Feast of St. Stephen, servants and workers were given clay boxes or ‘pigs,’ which they broke open to reveal gifts and coins.

Next, Saint John’s Day brought new light and a priest who blessed the best wine, which was kept all year for its healing properties and good luck, says Ellenor.

The day also featured a fairy hunt and a ‘Mother Holle’ who dispensed gifts from a silver sleigh.

Dec. 28 did not have an auspicious beginning as children were gently beaten with evergreen branches to drive out bad spirits in commemoration of wicked King Herod’s decree that all baby boys should be killed.

On Dec. 29’s Feast of Fools, people had their own special customs to honour the returning sun and the Nativity.

Day five, celebrated bringing in the boar.

“The hog was really important to the Celts, who would feast on the wild boar, which was carried into the hall on a large platter, with a golden apple in its mouth, to signify the sun coming back,” Ellenor explained.

Read more: Column: Shining a light on grief

Read more: Filling Christmas socks with magic

Read more: Word on the street: What was the most memorable gift you have received over the winter holidays?

It was also the day one unlucky young man was chosen to be the sacred king, a position that came to an abrupt end with his death.

The chosen knew what was to happen but only one refused.

“They killed him anyway, but he became a Christian saint” says Ellenor wryly. “It was one life to guarantee fertility for land, animals and people.”

On Day 6, Peace Day, the Druids celebrated ancient ceremonies that included cutting a spray of mistletoe.

Fighting ceased, enemies kissed and there was great rejoicing as the sun began creeping over the horizon.

Crowds gathered near the clock in town squares just before midnight, responding to the 12th strike by shaking hands and watching clowns perform traditional plays.

Hogmany, Jan. 1 was greeted with excitement and hope, and celebrated by sharing wassail, a mixture of hot ale, sugar, fruits and spices.

The apple trees were wakened and people would sing songs about the harvest.

Day eight was known as snow day, a time when a fresh mantle of white covered up old problems and allowed children the thrill of a toboggan ride.

Evergreen Day paid tribute to greenery that survived the winter and represented eternal life, was used to decorate homes and churches, and believed to be a powerful presence that watched over the farm fields.

Day 10, Saint Distaff Day, saw women resume their spinning following solstice celebrations.

It was also a time for fun, as young men would try to steal the women’s flax while the women retaliated by soaking the men with water.

On the Eve of Epiphany, parents hid gifts for their children, three golden dolls symbolizing the Three Wise Men’s search for the Baby Jesus. And, in a tradition that continues today, adults discussed the meaning of life and voiced what they wished for in the coming year.

Solstice celebrations came to a close on Epiphany, also known as Twelfth Night, says Ellenor, who notes that while decorations were removed Christmastide did not end quietly.

Rich and humble alike, celebrants dressed up as other people and indulged in special sugar cakes and games before returning, refreshed, to the work at hand.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Just Posted

As they carry out a FireSmart assessment in Salmon Arm, firefighters Carmen Guidos and Steve St. Denis show one of the easy-to-rectify fire hazards that can exist for unsuspecting residents. (Martha Wickett-Salmon Arm Observer)
Column: Lessons on welcoming a wildfire into your home

The View From Here by Martha Wickett

North Okanagan business Hytec Kohler set up a COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Spallumcheen plant Friday, May 14. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
More than half of eligible adults in Interior Health vaccinated

Over 365,000 vaccine doses have been administered throughout the Interior Health region

A 30-unit park model complex is proposed for two adjacent lots located on the Sicamous Channel north of Martin Street. (District of Sicamous graphic)
Park model complex proposed for Sicamous channel properties

Twin Anchors’ Todd Kyllo said lots would be serviced, boat slips available

New Border Bruins owner Dr. Mark Szynkaruk reps team colours with his young sons and wife Tracey. Photo courtesy of the Grand Forks Border Bruins
KIJHL’s Border Bruins sold to Grand Forks doctor

The league announced the sale Friday, May 14

Since late April, Shuswap residents may have been seeing an influx of white-crowned sparrows as they have been moving northward on their annual spring migration. (John Woods photo)
Sparrows stop by the Shuswap as they head north for spring

Bird watcher has seen about 100 per day during the peak of their visit

Daily confirmed COVID-19 cases reported to B.C. public health, seven-day rolling average in white, to May 12, 2021. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C. preparing ‘Restart 2.0’ from COVID-19 as June approaches

Daily infections fall below 500 Friday, down to 387 in hospital

Kelowna Law Courts. (Michael Rodriguez/Capital News)
Former Vernon teacher found guilty of historic sex crimes against minors

Anoop Singh Klair was found guilty of all eight charges against him in a Kelowna courtroom on Friday

The real estate market is hot in Vernon, and across the Okanagan. (John Dent photo)
North Okanagan home prices, demand continue to build

Single family home volumes up 200 per cent, worth average $647,000

An algal bloom on Wood Lake has residents concerned for the body of water's health. (Wendy Innes-Shaw)
‘Wood Lake looks seriously unwell’: Lake Country residents

Algal bloom appears to be getting worse, and stinky

A wildfire southeast of Vernon has been added to the BC Wildfire dashboard Friday, May 14, 2021. (BC Wildfire Service)
Wildfire sparks southeast of Vernon

The fire appears to be in a remote area east of Aberdeen Lake

Bradley Priestap in an undated photo provided to the media some time in 2012 by the London Police Service.
Serial sex-offender acquitted of duct tape possession in B.C. provincial court

Ontario sex offender on long-term supervision order was found with one of many ‘rape kit’ items

Rich Coleman, who was responsible for the gaming file off and on from 2001 to 2013, was recalled after his initial testimony to the Cullen Commission last month. (Screenshot)
Coleman questioned over $460K transaction at River Rock during B.C. casinos inquiry

The longtime former Langley MLA was asked about 2011 interview on BC Almanac program

Enderby’s Small Axe Roadhouse was the subject of nasty backlash after installing two busty beer towers. (Facebook)
Enderby bar’s busty beer taps to stay put despite backlash

‘Many folks have mansplained to us that we are sexist, misogynistic…’

Most Read