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.

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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.

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