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In western Christian belief, the 12 days of Christmas comprise the period between Christmas Day and the eve of the festival of Epiphany, which occurs on Jan. 6. Epiphany celebrates the day when the Magi arrived to offer gifts to the infant Jesus.
So the traditional song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" actually begins on Christmas Day, when my true love gave to me a partridge in a pear tree.
On Jan. 5 -- Twelfth Night -- the array of gifts includes 12 partridges and 12 pear trees, because a "partridge in a pear tree" is given on each of the 12 days. Since the other gifts also accumulate, by the time all is said and done (or said and sung), 376 items have been received if you count each partridge and each pear tree as separate gifts!
The song itself may date back to the 1200s, according to the Hymns and Carols of Christmas Web site. It evolved through many variations before it was first published in something close to its modern form, in 1868.
As the song developed over time, the gift lists also underwent transformation. In some versions, the list includes "8 hares a-running." Other renditions have "bears a-baiting," "bulls a-bleating" or deer "a-running," among others.
But all versions seem to begin with a lone partridge in a pear tree, given on the First Day of Christmas -- Dec. 25.
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