Many people believe that the Twelve Days of Christmas occur during the days leading up to Christmas. Actually, that is not correct. The Twelve Days begin on Christmas Day (December 25th) and run through Epiphany (January 6th). This period of time is also known to many of us as Christmastide, Yuletide, or Twelvetide. But don't be confused... the twelve nights run from Christmas Eve (December 24th through January 5th.
Initially, gifts were distributed to their recipients during the course of the twelve days, as is seen in Drennon's famous song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas". Today, however, these twelve days and nights are celebrated differently in different places around the world. In some countries, gifts are only given on Christmas Day while in other places they are given only on the Twelfth Night or, in some places, on each of the twelve nights.
But how did all of this get started? Many believe that the lengthy holiday season is patterned after the Germanic Yuletide or possibly even the Roman Saturnalia, pagan customs though they may be. We know that during the Middle Ages, these twelve days in England consisted of continuous feasting and 'merrymaking'. Today, countries in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth still celebrate many of the Christmastide traditions such as Boxing Day, plum pudding, and Wassail.
When the early colonists came to the new world from England, they adapted their own version of the twelve days for their new country. This version acquired variations through the years becoming uniquely American. It is believed the the Christmas wreath originated with the colonists who made these decorations for their doors out of the local pine. It was tradition to make these on Christmas Eve and then to hang them on the door through either the Twelfth Night or Epiphany morning.
The Twelfth Day, Epiphany, is the day set aside to remember the visit of the Magi (wise men), or kings from the east. In many countries, a king's cake, is baked for Epiphany. The cake is baked with a real fava bean inside. Whoever finds the fève is obligated to provide the cake next year. His partner, likewise, is obligated to provide next year's champagne. In some English-speaking countries, it is believed to be unlucky to leave Christmas decorations up past the Twelfth Night or Epiphany morning, though in non-English speaking countries, they are often left up until Candlemas (February 2nd).