Twelve days

Is Christmas Day the twelfth day of Christmas or the first? And why does it cost US$170,298.03?

Seven swans
Tsyganov Sergey [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
It’s pretty common now for companies to do sales or special events on the twelve days leading up to Christmas, reaching a climax on the twelfth day with Christmas Eve. Ostensibly, they are following the carol The Twelve Days of Christmas. In traditional Christian tradition, however, December 25th is the first day of Christmas.

The twelve days of Christmas were set out in the 6th century CE, and originally stretched from the day commemorating the birth of Jesus to the Epiphany – which is traditionally celebrated January 6th. The Epiphany celebrates either the arrival of the Wise Men (in Western Christianity) or the baptism of Jesus (Eastern Christianity). The night before the Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, is Twelfth Night.

Over to the Christmas carol. The Twelve Days of Christmas is a cumulative song that builds up an enormous pile of gifts through the Christmas miracle of triangular number sequences. The first day, my true love gives one gift. The second day, three more gifts, for a total of four. The third day, six more gifts, meaning ten total. By the time we get to the twelfth day of Christmas you should have 364 gifts in all.

In the United States, PNC Bank keeps track of how much it would cost to buy all 364 of those gifts. This year, my true love must shell out US$170,298.03 – including renting pipers, dancers, and milkmaids. The cheapest are the milkmaids, because they are paid federal minimum wage; the most expensive are the swans. That makes sense, my last swan purchase was ridiculous.

Incidentally, the creation of the holy prepuce – that dodgiest of relics – supposedly happened on the eighth day of Christmas, the same day as the maids a-milking.


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