The 12 days of Christmas is the period that in Christian theology marks the span between the birth of Christ and the coming of the Magi, the three wise men. It begins on December 25 (Christmas) and runs through January 6 (the Epiphany, sometimes also called Three Kings' Day). The four weeks preceding Christmas are collectively known as Advent, which begins four Sundays before Christmas and ends on December 24.The 12 Days have been celebrated in Europe since before the middle ages and are a time of celebration.
So, my comment about taking the whole month of December off isn't too outrageous if we add the four weeks prior to 25th December to the time to Ephiphany (6 January). Christmas day is only beginning, yet few families choose to mark the 12-day period by observing the feast days of various saints (including St. Stephen on December 26) and planning daily Christmas-related activities. Things go back to business as usual after December 25 for most people.
For those who are into the liturgical 12 days, each traditionally celebrate a feast day for a saint and/or have different celebrations:
- Day 1 (25th December): Christmas Day - celebrating the Birth of Jesus
- Day 2 (26th December also known as Boxing Day): St Stephen’s Day. He was the first Christian martyr (someone who dies for their faith). It's also the day when the Christmas Carol 'Good King Wenceslas' takes place.
- Day 3 (27th December): St John the Apostle (One of Jesus's Disciples and friends)
- Day 4 (28th December): The Feast of the Holy Innocents - when people remember the baby boys which King Herod killed when he was trying to find and kill the Baby Jesus.
- Day 5 (29th December): St Thomas Becket. He was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th century and was murdered on 29th December 1170 for challenging the King’s authority over the Church.
- Day 6 (30th December): St Egwin of Worcester.
- Day 7 (31st December): New Year's Eve (known as Hogmanay in Scotland). Pope Sylvester I is traditionally celebrated on this day. He was one of the earliest popes (in the 4th Century). In many central and eastern European countries (including Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Czechia, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Slovakia, Switzerland and Slovenia) New Year's Eve is still sometimes called 'Silvester'. In the UK, New Year's Eve was a traditional day for ‘games’ and sporting competitions. Archery was a very popular sport and during the middle ages it was the law that it had to be practised by all men between ages 17-60 on Sunday after Church! This was so the King had lots of very good archers ready in case he need to go to war!
- Day 8 (1st January): 1st January - Mary, the Mother of Jesus
- Day 9 (2nd January): St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen, two important 4th century Christians.
- Day 10 (3rd January): Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. This remembers when Jesus was officially 'named' in the Jewish Temple. It's celebrated by different churches on a wide number of different dates!
- Day 11 (4th January): St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American saint, who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the past it also celebrated the feast of Saint Simon Stylites (who lives on a small platform on the top of a pillar for 37 years!).
- Day 12 (5th January also known as Epiphany Eve): St. John Neumann who was the first Bishop in American. He lived in the 19th century.
Let's toss in that the Puritans pretty much wiped out the extended Christmas celebration. After all, it's not too far out to start preparing in November if your Christmas begins four weeks before the 25th of December.
But the bottom line is that the Solstice/Christmas Celebration tend to be long because it is intended to "drive the cold winter away". It is something to keep seasonal affective disorder at bay and seems really weird when celebrated in the Southern Hemisphere where the days are long.