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Activities and Recipes for the 12 Days of Christmas in Ireland

Patty collects recipes and gadgets from the past and is particularly interested in early American history and all Indigenous Peoples.

Christmas Market in Ireland

Christmas Market in Ireland

The Christmas Codes and Secrets

Traditionally, the Irish have celebrated the 12 Days of Christmas from Christmas Eve on December 24, all the way through January 6, plus Handsels Day, upon which children receive additional small presents called handsels. This makes 13 Days of Christmas. Some of the days are Catholic Saints' Feast Days and some are simply additional celebrations to tie all the days together.

Twelfth Night takes us right into the Mardi Gras Season in New Orleans, with parties and costumes weekly until the week of Fat Tuesday before Lent. That week, parades and costume balls occur nightly, with the largest being on Tuesday. Given all that, you might say that the Christmas Season is about three months long!

Don't miss the recipes below, because they are easy to make and fun to use for Christmas.

The 12 Days of Christmas as a song became a code beginning in the times when Christmas and Catholicism were banned as illegal in England and Ireland at the from 1558 to 1829.

For over 70 years, the song contained a code for the celebration of Jesus Christ in open secret, until Parliament lifted the ban.

Traditions as a Code

Holiday and seasonal traditions observed within cultures other than our own often seem like a code of a secret society, until we become familiar with them, their origins, and various meanings. As serendipity, however, it seems that some Christmas traditions observed at school and at home during my childhood were Irish.

For over 70 years, the song contained a code for the celebration of Jesus Christ in open secret, until Parliament lifted the ban.

The Code of a Partridge in a Pear Tree

The singer is the Believer, God is their True Love and Christ is the Partridge.

The singer is the Believer, God is their True Love and Christ is the Partridge.

Christmas lights; Belfast, Donegall Place.

Christmas lights; Belfast, Donegall Place.

You may have electric "candles" in your windows or elsewhere in the house during Christmastime. In Ireland, it is customary to place thick white candles or electric lights shaped like candles in each window of the house during this season. The light guides the hungry and homeless to shelter, while it commemorates the expectation of the human race for Mary and Joseph in the stable to bring forth the Christ child.

Further, on December 24th, milk and Irish bread are left on the dining room table with a lit candle, along with lighted candles in the windows -- The door is left unlocked so that any hungry, lonely person may enter and eat. This is to remember that Mary and Joseph found no room at the inn and that Irish homes would welcome them in today.

Apparently, in some parts of Ireland, children put out large bags rather than stockings for gifts on December 24th, and leave Father Christmas some mince pies and a bottle of Guinness.

Another Irish tradition during the 12 Days of Christmas from December 25th through Twelfth Night is making pillowcases on January 1st for good fortune and continued work/income. Some say that the pillowcase is made to hold the large fortunes coming in the new year.

On St. Stephen's Day (December 26th, or Boxing Day in the UK and elsewhere), a tradition of boys carrying a dead wren (today, an artificial wren) in a basket or on the end of a stick and seeking donations throughout town to save the hungry wren is still observed. This is like trick or treat with money given instead fo candies, and seemingly only for boys and not girls. Adults watch football (soccer) and horse racing on TV.

Christmas In Dublin

Christmas In Dublin

The Code Before Religious Freedom

The 12 Days of Christmas from December 25th - January 5th-6th (12th Night and the beginning of the Mardi Gras season that extends to Fat Tuesday before Lent).

  1. Day - A Partridge in a Pear Tree represented Jesus Christ, God's Gift to each of His children (the Church). The partridge is depicted as a female - a mother bird that lures danger away from her babies. Some say that the tree represents the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden
  2. Day - Two turtle doves: The Old Testament and the New Testament.
  3. Day - Three French hens: Faith, Hope, and Love, from the Bible (1 Corinthians 13).
  4. Day - Four calling birds = The Four Evangelists that wrote the Four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
  5. Day - Five Golden Rings symbolize the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament.
  6. Day - Six geese laying eggs = 6 Days of Creation.
  7. Day - Seven swans simming = The Gifts of the Holy Spirit.
  8. Day - Eight maids milking cows = The Beatitudes, given by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount.
  9. Day - Nine ladies dancing = The Fruit(s) of the Spirit as listed in Galatians 5:22-23.
  10. Day - Ten lords leaping are the Ten Commandments.
  11. Day - Eleven pipers piping represent the Eleven Apostles that stayed faithful or returned to faith (Peter, Thomas), but not Judas.
  12. Day - The 12 drummers drumming represent the twelve tenets of the Apostles' Creed.
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Fun for Teachers and Home Schoolers

"Exploring Discrete Mathematics": Figure out the cost of all of the gifts on the 12 Days of Christmas! Link for worksheets and the lesson plan are provided free by Rutgers University at A Partridge in a Pear Tree.


Irish Spiced and Pressed Beef

This meat needs to be marinated for two weeks before cooking.


  • 4 Pounds of Lean Brisket (Beef)
  • 1/4 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1Tbsp whole juniper berries
  • 1 Tbsp whole allspice
  • 1 Tbsp. whole black peppercorns
  • 1/4 cup kosher salt
  • 3/4 cup cold water


  1. Using your fingers press brown sugar down into the beef like a dry rub on all sides.
  2. Put meat into a large casserole dish, cover, and set in refrigerate for two days. Do not stir.
  3. To make an additional dry rub, crush juniper berries, allspice, peppercorns, and salt all together.
  4. Once a day every day for 9 days, press 1 Tbsp of the second dry rub over the meat surface and return to the refrigerator.
  5. On Day 12, preheat the oven to 275 degrees F.
  6. Rinse the beef under cold water to remove excess dry rub. Pour off the brine.
  7. Return the beef to the casserole dish and add the water.
  8. Cover the dish and bake 3.5 hours until meat is tender. Remove from oven, let sit 20 minutes to rest and wrap in foil.
  9. Put a heavy platter or board on top of the meat and weigh it down with something heavy. Refrigerate the weighted meat overnight to press it.
  10. Carve the beef very thin and serve with bread and butter.

Wll Known Soda Bread


  • 2 Cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp EACH salt, cream of tartar, and baking soda
  • 1/2 Cup buttermilk, or more to form a wet dough
  • 1 Tablespoon butter
  • 1/8 Cup sugar
  • 1/4 Cup raisins


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Sieve together flour, salt, cream of tartar & baking soda.
  3. Cut in the butter; add sugar and raisins and mix well.
  4. Add buttermilk to form an overall damp, stretchy dough.
  5. Cover a bread board with flour and knead the dough 5 minutes.
  6. Make an oval, roll it in flour, and out it in a floured baking pan.
  7. Flatten the bread to 1.5 inches tall in the pan.
  8. Bake 30 minutes until a knife blade inserted in the center comes out clean.
  9. Serve hot or cold, with the spiced pressed beef.

Traditional Short Bread Treat


  • 1 1/2 Cups flour
  • 1 stick butter
  • 3/4 cup sugar


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Soften butter on the countertop.
  3. Cut butter into flour and rub into flour with fingers. It should now look like meal or cracker crumbs.
  4. Add sugar and mix well..
  5. Grease bottom and sides of an 8” square or round pan with butter and dust with flour.
  6. Press the dough strongly into the bottom of pan- That’s what makes it “short.”
  7. Bake 30 minutes. Remove pan from oven to a towel on the counter.
  8. Quickly cut the shortbread with a sharp blade into shapes while warm and sprinkle with sugar, which will set as the shortbread cools.
  9. Set aside to cool in the pan or it will crumble. Enjoy!
Christmas Crib (Nativity) in Ireland, 2014

Christmas Crib (Nativity) in Ireland, 2014

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2008 Patty Inglish MS


Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on December 20, 2012:

Very informative ---I have learned so much this year about this song of the ages. The recipes sound like something I must try. I just learn to make soda bread this summer and now I will try your recipe.I have added this to a list of the 12 Days of Christmas entries that are here on hp. My submission on the 12 Days was published a few days is entitled the 12 Days of Christmas...revisited.

Have a lovely day and a wonderful Christmas Sending Angels your way :) ps

Leah Lefler from Western New York on January 01, 2012:

Very interesting! I never realized the 12 days of Christmas were a code during the time of Cromwell - I love learning new things!

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on January 01, 2012:

Happy New Year!

bell du jour from Ireland on December 15, 2011:

Hi Patty, I'm Irish and a lot of this is new to me!! Very interesting hub, voted up. Merry Christmas :-)


Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on December 30, 2008:

I thought you might like this Bing Crosby video, William! Happy New Year and thanks for visiting! 

William F Torpey from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on December 29, 2008:

I'm late to the party, Patty, but I really enjoyed this hub -- And the Bing Crosby family video is absolutely magnificent.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on December 29, 2008:

Thanks for all the comments! Are you wearing green, compu-smart?

Bruce - I didn't know about the Guinness until I began digging further into Irish traditions, Unexpected, isn't it?

Bruce Elkin from Victoria, BC Canada on December 28, 2008:

Jeez, I'd be Santa if you left me mince pies and Guiness. Great hub. Thanks!

Tony Sky from London UK on December 28, 2008:

Great Hub Patty, Lots of interestings stuff to be sure to be sure:)<--bad Irish accent! lol


Esther Shamsunder from Bangalore,India on December 26, 2008:

Thank you very much for explaining the code.Your hub is very enlightening and as always SUPER!!! Thanks for answering my request,Patty!

Zsuzsy Bee from Ontario/Canada on December 26, 2008:

Patty! To visit Ireland is on my "to-do-before..." list. I love it when you combine a hub with a recipe.

I only heard about this code a couplke of years ago. You did a super job at explaining it better though.

regards Zsuzsy

Netters from Land of Enchantment - NM on December 26, 2008:

I love reading your hubs. Very educational and interesting. Thank you.

Triplet Mom from West Coast on December 24, 2008:

Wow very interesting, I love learning something new everyday! Thanks

eovery from MIddle of the Boondocks of Iowa on December 24, 2008:

Nice hub, again

Merry Christmas and Happy Prosperous Hubbing New Year.

Jerilee Wei from United States on December 24, 2008:

Very interesting and I certainly never heard about the code. Merry Christmas!

VioletSun from Oregon/ Name: Marie on December 24, 2008:

Between you and Pgrundy who wrote a hub on pagan calendars, I learned something new in the last two days. I have to admit, I didn't know about the code behind the popular Christmas song. We humans can be very inventive, and to keep the code alive is fascinating.

I am sharing your hub in my Yahoo forum.  

Very entertaining hub, and Merry Christmas! 

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on December 24, 2008:

Thanks SY and Merry Christmas.

Sybille Yates on December 24, 2008:

Excellent hub, Merry Christmas! SY

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on December 24, 2008:

Peace and blessings to you, Prince Maak.

Prince Maak from Just Above the EARTH and below the SKY on December 24, 2008:

A good hub to read.

Merry Christmas Patty.

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