These questions were posed to me by one of my inquisitive daughters so here are the answers plus a little more!
I’ll try to keep it short and simple and I will refer to everything as though I was in the Northern Hemisphere.
Let’s tackle the Winter Solstice and Christmas Day first ~
What is a Solstice? ~ The Winter Solstice is marked when the Earth is at what is called 23.45° North Declination. Don’t let this confuse you too much. An easy way to picture this is that on the Equinox’s (12hrs day, 12hrs night), the Earth is at 0° Declination and Summer Solstice at 23.45° South Declination (Winter for us southern hemispherians).
The Winter Solstice occurs between December 20 and 23 but usually on the 21st or 22nd. Of course, the powers that be like things nice and predictable so it seems they settled on the 22nd as the date to mark it.
Now back to the declination thing. The Earth stays at 23.45° North Declination for three days so it is three days before the Sun begins to return. In Pagan mythos, this is the time of the Sun’s death and rebirth. So, if the Solstice falls or the Sun dies on the 22nd, it begins its return or rebirth, on the 25th! An awesome time for gift giving in celebration of the turning of the seasonal wheel and fertile times ahead
Now the fun bit!
The Twelve Days of Christmas or Twelve Days of Yule ~
In Christianity, the Twelve days of Christmas begin on the 25th, Christ’s birth. For many Pagans, the Twelve days of Yule begin on the Solstice. It seems the Christians carried this one over a little bit better than many neo Pagans who seem to have forgotten something very important!
As with all of these types of celebrations, everything revolves around what’s happening in the sky and Earth’s position within the whole network.
Now we talk about something called Perihelion. (from the Greek peri – close and helios – Sun) As its name suggests, when the Earth is at Perihelion, it is at its closest point to the Sun within its orbit. The Earth has an elliptical (oval) orbit around the Sun and when farthest away, this is called Aphelion.
As with Solstice, the dates for Perihelion vary and occur between the 3rd and 6th of January. It appears that, our friends, the powers that be settled on the 5th. Count the days between Christmas and Perihelion and boom, we have the Twelve Days of Christmas!
Of course we can never truly know but it makes perfect sense, at least to me, that our pre-Christian forefathers would have varied their Winter Solstice celebration from twelve to sixteen days depending on when both the Winter Solstice and Perihelion fell.
Now for that “plus a little more” I promised in the opening.
We all know that Christmas Carol that seems to go forever called The Twelve Days of Christmas yes?
From the mid 16th to early 19th centuries, Catholics in England were not allowed to practice their religion openly. Someone during that period wrote this song as a ‘secret’ celebration of their faith and here are the ‘hidden’ meanings behind what seem like senseless words!
“The partridge in a pear tree was Jesus Christ.
Two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments
Three French hens stood for faith, hope and love.
The four calling birds were the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke & John.
The five golden rings recalled the Torah or Law, the first five books of the Old Testament.
The six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation.
Seven swans a-swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit - Prophesy, Serving, Teaching, Exhortation, Contribution, Leadership, and Mercy.
The eight maids a-milking were the eight beatitudes.
Nine ladies dancing were the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit-Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self Control.
The ten lords a-leaping were the ten commandments.
The eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful disciples.
The twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in the Apostles' Creed.”
I hope that all made sense and please feel free to comment or ask for further explanation.
The Crystal Man