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Twelfth Night Names: From Airi to Wren

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By K. M. Sheard, Nook of Names

Today is the Christian feast of Epiphany, the traditional date among Catholics and Protestants when the legendary “Three Kings” visited the baby Jesus.

In parts of Italy, it is at Epiphany, not on Christmas Day, that children get their presents — delivered by a witch called Befana by broomstick last night.

In Britain and America, however, Epiphany — which also happens to be the twelfth day of Christmas, that is to say “Twelfth Night” — is often entirely neglected now, though once, when the twelve days were kept with full festivity, it was a big event — so big, it even got a Shakespearian play named after it.

The fabled “Twelve Days of Christmas” have their roots in the Norse Jól, and were originally kept between December 20th and the 31st.

They also have very prosaic origins; at this darkest time of the year, with the harvest gathered in, animals slaughtered, and crops requiring sowing in the autumn sowed, there really wasn’t much that needed doing – making it a perfect time for relaxing, and enjoying the year’s produce while it was still fresh.

I’ve always felt it rather sad that while the shops start celebrating the Midwinter festivals in the summer, and many people can’t wait to get their decorations out at the start of December — sometimes even in November, as soon as the New Year comes, it all gets put away, even though this is the traditional period for still celebrating.

Growing up, my family was one of the few who did keep Twelfth Night, making a special event of the last day of the tree. We still do.

One of our little traditions is that as we take down the decorations, we always sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Unfortunately, the gifts sent on each of the days aren’t that name-worthy in their own right, but they do suggest those that are.

And so, to mark the occasion, here are my ideas:

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

A partridge in a pear-tree

Airi, Alula, Apion, Betrisen, Ena, Enas, Li, Madaria, Mia, Pear, Pera, Perdiz, Pernice, Perina, Perry, Piro, Primula, Primus, Rika, Una

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

Two turtle doves

Aphrodite, Callum, Colm, Colmán, Columba, Columbine, Dove, Dovie, Duo, Jemima, Jonah, Mimi, Paloma, Peleia, Secunda, Secundus, Thania, Trygon, Tuvi, Venus

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

Three French hens

Chuck, Frances, Francesca, Francis, Frank, Hen, Talitha, Tertia, Tertius, Tertulla, Thrima, Tria, Trinity, Triskele, Trystine, Wren

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

Four colly birds,

Aderyn, Amsel, Bird, Chogan, Colly, Deryn, Lonan, Merle, Merula, Quatro, Quartilla, Quartus, Tessera, Tesseres

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

Five gold rings

Aranka, Aurea, Cinq, Cressida, Cyclamen, Eliphaz, Golden, Kirk, Marigold, Morgan, Orla, Quinque, Quintilla, Quintus, Sovann, Sunakai, Suwan

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

Six geese a-laying

Anser, Antzara, Gander, Goshawk, Gossamer, Gus, Guska, Hani, Hex, Liba, Sextilla, Sextus, Zoss

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

Seven swans a-swimming

Cygne, Cygnet, Cygnus, Ella, Gulb?, Iswan, Joutsen, Leda, Luik, Odette, Septima, Septimus, Seven, Swan, Swanilda

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

Eight maids a-milking

Aludra, Cora, Corinna, Galatea, Impi, Meinir, Octavia, Octavian, Octavius, Octo, Parthenia, Virginia, Virgo

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

Nine ladies dancing

Anassa, Beletili, Caryatis, Ceilidh, Cordax, Creusa, Damsel, Dominique, Dominy, Donna, Jive, Lady, Madonna, Martha, Nephthys, Nina, Nona, Nonus, Nostradamus

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

Ten lords a-leaping

Adonai, Anaxandra, Anaxander, Baal, Caderyn, Cyril, Deacon, Decima, Decimus, Dinesh, Dominic, Don, Doyen, Edwen, Lapwing, Lord, Marquis, Meredith, Murdoch, Ner, Nerys, Rakesh, Ramnath, Sacheverell, Tiernan, Tierney

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

Eleven pipers piping

Aule, Auletes, Auletris, Aulus, Endeka, Doucet, Fife, Flauta, Fletna, Flute, Fretel, Ney, Onze, Pan, Pfeifer, Piper, Quena, Subulo, Tibiae, Tibicen, Tibicina, Undecima, Undecimus

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

Twelve drummers drumming

Baraban, Boben, Davul, Drummer, Duodecima, Duodecima, Nagara, Ngoma, Rebana, Tabala, Tambor, Tambour, Timbrel, Trommel, Trumm, Typanon

A version of this blog appeared previously at Nook of Names.

A graduate of the University of Cambridge, K. M. Sheard is the author of the encyclopedic reference Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Names, and writes  Nook of Names, a blog on all things onomastic.

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Nook of Names

A graduate of the University of Cambridge, K. M. Sheard is the author of the encyclopedic reference Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Names, and writes Nook of Names, a blog on all things onomastic.
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