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I know English has (or at least had) some strange usages of eve and night, but I still can’t figure out how December 25th and 12 can be combined to come up with January 6th.

(This stems from my annual rant about the twelve days of Christmas, namely that despite what modern commerce would have you believe, they come after the 25th, not before.)

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+1 for your annual rant about the 12 days of Christmas. –  JSBձոգչ Dec 29 '10 at 15:41
hmm... wouldn't questions about combinatorics be on math.stackexchange.com ?? –  advs89 Jan 20 '11 at 1:57
...and an annual rant in a pear tree. –  Piskvor Dec 9 '11 at 12:19
@Kris: eh? Are you making a lame attempt at a joke, or something? –  Marthaª Dec 25 '12 at 15:27
@Kris, how about you start by reading the entire question, not just the title, and we'll go from there. How's that sound? –  Marthaª Dec 26 '12 at 5:48
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5 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

This isn’t a full answer, but some more pieces of the puzzle. Briefly: the OED supports the argument that the usage “twelfth night” = “Jan 6th” comes not from subtleties of ecclesiastical reckoning, but from a recent shift in meaning.

According to the OED, the twelve days originally referred to the twelve days after Christmas, i.e. starting from the first day after it; the somewhat misleading phrasing the twelve days of Christmas to refer to these days only comes later. Hence the twelve days have always properly been Dec 26–Jan 6, the first ‘day of Christmas’ is not the same as Christmas day, and twelfth-day is a synonym for Epiphany. (These are well-attested in quotations back to the 10th century; most explicitly, for instance, “The feastful day of the Epiphanye commonly called Twelf-day.”, T. Becon Relikes of Rome, 1553.)

However (continuing with the OED), this doesn’t answer the question: twelfth-night did indeed properly refer to the eve of twelfth-day, i.e. to the night between the 5th and 6th of January. (This is also attested back to the 10th century.)

So presumably at some point in comparatively modern times, the phrase twelfth-night lost its footing and slipped a day. It’s easy to speculate on ways that could happen: maybe in eg the 19th century the actual twelfth-night festivities fell out of fashion and the bigger celebration was on twelfth-day, but for various reasons (eg the Shakespeare title) people were still familiar with the phrase twelfth-night, and so assumed that it referred to the festival they knew? I suspect that some digging around in 18th/19th-century literature on Google Books might well be fruitful in narrowing down this sort of speculation, pinning down something of when and how the shift actually happened.

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I beg to differ about this being an incomplete answer: you actually did some digging and came up with supportable facts, rather than repeating the same old same old. –  Marthaª Jan 22 '11 at 15:32
Could it have anything to do with the Jewish custom in which a day begins at sunset? That is, the Sabbath celebrated on Saturday begins Friday evening. –  tajmo Jan 6 '12 at 17:07
It makes perfect sense in C. day *xmas = &dec25; for (int x = 1; x <= 12; x++) give_gift(xmas[i]); –  gmcgath Dec 25 '12 at 15:53
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No method. The twelfth day is January 5th:

  1. 25-Dec
  2. 26-Dec
  3. 27-Dec
  4. 28-Dec
  5. 29-Dec
  6. 30-Dec
  7. 31-Dec
  8. 01-Jan
  9. 02-Jan
  10. 03-Jan
  11. 04-Jan
  12. 05-Jan

January 6th is the day after the twelfth day of Christmas. I am not an expert on this subject, but this is from the Wikipedia page on Epiphany:

Christian feast celebrating the appearance of Jesus Christ to the Magi (representing the world., traditionally celebrated on January 6, the day after the twelfth day of Christmas.

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Exactly. Epiphany is not itself the twelfth day of Christmas, rather the twelve days of Christmas are the days between Christmas Eve and Epiphany. –  JSBձոգչ Dec 29 '10 at 15:42
I realize the 5th is the 12th day. What I'm wondering is how did the 6th come to be called 12th night. –  Marthaª Dec 29 '10 at 17:34
@Martha: ok, in this case I'll leave this one to somebody else to answer, because I'm not familiar with the phrase "12th night" for January 6th. Sorry –  b.roth Dec 29 '10 at 17:46
@Martha, in the traditional reckoning of liturgical feasts, a feast begins on the evening preceding the feast day (the "eve"). This means that the feast of Epiphany can be said to begin with Epiphany Eve, the evening of Jan 5th, which is the twelfth night of Christmas. –  JSBձոգչ Dec 30 '10 at 2:19
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Linked on from the Wikipedia page, The Telegraph says,

But many people believe Twelfth Night falls on Jan 6, at the end of the 12th day after Christmas...

The difference in opinion is said to be down to the fact that in centuries past, Christmas was deemed to start at sunset on Dec 24 and so the 12th night following it was Jan 5. Nowadays, people count from Dec 25 and so assume Twelfth Night falls on the 6th.

As it says - the method that counts the 12th night following Christmas i.e. which starts counting from Dec 26th, ends with the Twelfth night on Jan 6th

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The Wikipedia article is somewhat confusingly written. It seems to say that Epiphany == the 12th day of Christmas, which is clearly wrong (no matter what hour you change dates, the 25th is the first day, and there's no way to get from the 25th to the 6th in just twelve 24-hour increments). –  Marthaª Dec 30 '10 at 0:00
@Martha: which is why I quoted the relevant bits of the Telegraph article. you get from 26th to 6th in 12 days. not starting from 25th. –  JoseK Dec 30 '10 at 0:10
(1) The quote from the Telegraph article does not mention the 26th, and (2) You can't start counting on the 26th - define Christmas how you will, but the 25th is and always has been the first day. –  Marthaª Dec 30 '10 at 0:14
@Martha: quote: But many people believe Twelfth Night falls on Jan 6, at the end of the 12th day after Christmas - after Christmas implies they started counting from 26th. It might have been the practice in England in Shakespearean times, just saying –  JoseK Dec 30 '10 at 5:41
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I would imagine the confusion comes from having people who assume day precedes night tacking an extra, incorrect, night to the end.

The Twelfth Night is January 5th, the last day of the Christmas Season before Epiphany (January 6th). In some church traditions, January 5th is considered the eleventh Day of Christmas, while the evening of January 5th is still counted as the Twelfth Night, the beginning of the Twelfth day of Christmas the following day.


Case in point the argument in this article only makes any sort of logical sense if you assume "The first day" is the evening of the twenty-fifth, which would make "the twelfth night" fall on the 6th. (Night coming after day, even though they defined the day as something which started at night.)

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Is the 25th of December the 'first day' of Christmas, or the 'zeroth' day?

According to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelve_days_of_Christmas Boxing Day, or the 26th, is considered the 'first full day' - so that would place the twelfth night on the 5th of January, but the twelfth day would be the 6th.

I wonder if this is at all related to the idea of the new day starting at sundown (for example, the Jewish Shabbat runs from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday).

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Given that we're talking about language constructs that are older than the mathematical concept of "zero", this doesn't really work. The first full day of Christmas goes from sundown on the 24th (hence "Christmas eve") to sundown on the 25th. –  Marthaª Jan 20 '11 at 2:24
It doesn't matter whether people understood the concept of 'zero' or not - it matters when they start counting from. It would appear that, in the UK at least, people did not start counting until Christmas Night (i.e., sundown on the 25th) - the wiki article I linked to clearly states that Boxing Day is the first full day of Christmas. –  HorusKol Jan 20 '11 at 2:44
@Martha: Let's see it another way, the german version of the wikipedia page would state that the counting begin at Christmas evening. As such the first day would be from 25th evening to 26th evening, making the first night the 26th (when assuming a cycle day-night-day-...). In this logic January the 6th would be the twelfth night. –  Eldroß Jan 20 '11 at 10:57
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protected by RegDwigнt Jan 6 '12 at 18:29

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