We've been counting down the 12 Days of Cracked-mas with 12 articles inspired by the gifts in the "12 Days of Christmas" song. But despite all those store promotions and entertainment marathons called "12 days of Christmas" leading up to Christmas Day, the real 12 Days of Christmas don't end at Christmas. They start at Christmas. 

The real 12 Days of Christmas mark the twelve days from Christmas to the Christian festival of Epiphany, which commemorates the Three Wise Men meeting Jesus. In Christmas pageants / Nativity plays, those three guys witness the birth itself, but that's not how it happens in the Bible. In fact, from the way the Bible describes it, it's possible the Magi didn't arrive till years after Jesus was born. The story of the Wise Man is a chapter after the birth, and by this time, Jesus is a "young child" instead of a baby, and the Holy Family have their own house instead of squeezing into a barn.

It's easy to see why "the 12 days" became the twelve days leading up to Christmas instead of the twelve days after it. Most people don't celebrate Epiphany, so the original twelve days don't count down to much of anything anymore, and it's a lot more fun counting down to something fun than counting aimlessly once the fun's over. On the other hand, if people are looking for some way of counting down to Christmas, the Christian calendar already has one. It's called Advent, and you've probably already heard it. 

Advent has also seen its definition change thanks to commercialization. In the Christian calendar, Advent starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, which means its date varies from year to year. This year, it began on November 28, and next year, it'll start on November 27. But for merchandising purposes, it's a lot easier to say it starts on December 1 every year, so that's the date you'll probably see if you buy one of those chocolate Advent calendars. 

Advent was traditionally a time of fasting or penitence, so not much fun. The 12-day Christmas season was the fun part, culminating with Twelfth Night, a holiday that's now forgotten (other than as the name of the Shakespeare play). So, we'll wish you all a Merry Christmas today. But we'll urge you all to save a little cake and spiked punch so you can have an even more merry Twelfth Night. Throw a huge party on January 5—it's when your neighbors will least expect it.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me

Twelve drummers drumming

Eleven pipers piping 

Ten lords a-leaping

Nine ladies dancing

Eight maids a-milking

Seven swans a-swimming

Six geese a-laying

Five gold rings!

Four calling birds

Three French hens

Two turtle doves

and a partridge in a pear tree!

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Top image: Serge Melki

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