The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Philip Barry

Excepted from an article "Some Traditional Songs"

Source: Philip Barry, "The Twelve Days of Christmas," from "Some Traditional Songs" in The Journal of American Folk-Lore, Vol. XVIII, No. LXVIII. (American Folklore Society ; Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, January-March 1905), pp. 5659.

See: Twelve Days of Christmas - Notes on the Festival and the Carol

 

Song IV. The Twelve Days of Christmas.

Mentioned among the Allen Songs as a Christmas carol, it is, however, neither a Christmas song nor a carol. Mrs. Gomme (Traditional Games, vol. ii. p. 319) gives the best account of it, showing that it is originally a game, bearing some resemblance to the game of "Forfeits," and connected with the festivities of the Epiphany. " The company were all seated round the room. The leader of the game commenced by saying the first line. The lines for the first day of Christmas were said by each of the company in turn, then the first day was repeated, with the addition of the second by the leader, and then this was said all around the circle in turn. This was continued, until all the lines were said all round the circle in turn. For every mistake, a forfeit had to be given up."

The version in the Allen Songs is as follows :

1 The first day of Christmas my true love sent to me
A part of a juniper tree.

2 The second day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Two turtle doves, and a part of a juniper tree.

And so on, a different gift being added for each of the twelve days. The last stanza reads as follows

The twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Twelve lords a-reaping,
Eleven golden pippins,
Ten fiddlers playing,
Nine ladies dancing,
Eight hounds a-running,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-flying,
five gold rings,
Four college birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves, and a part of a juniper tree.

This song became popular in America at an early date, as the following melody, copied from a manuscript of 1790, testifies :

From the same source as the version of "The Elfin Knight," cited on a previous page, I have the following set of the words and air of this game-song.

The first day of Christmas my true love sent to me
A part of a juniper tree.

And so on, a different gift being added for each of the twelve days. The twelfth stanza is as follows,

The twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Twelve ships a-sailing,
Eleven bells a-ringing,
Ten girls a-dancing,
Nine fiddles playing,
Eight horses running,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-flying,
Five gold rings,
Four colly birds,
Three French horns,
Two turtle doves, and a part of a juniper tree.

Phillips Barry.

Boston, Mass.

Editorial note in The Journal of American Folk-Lore: The pamphlet from which are taken the four songs above given is entitled "Family Songs, compiled by Rosa S. Allen, Music arranged by Joseph A. Allen. As sung by the Aliens at the Homestead, Castle Hill, Medfield, Massachusetts, 1899." Pp. 14.

The songs included are as follows:

1. Katy Cruel.
2. Johnny, the Miller.
3. Blow, ye Winds, Blow.
4. Polly Van.
5. Bingo.
6. The Ram of Derby.
7. Song of a Hunter.
8. A Frog he would A-Wooing go.
9. The Dumb Wife.
10. When Adam was First Created.
11. The Twelve Days of Christmas.
12. The Quaker's Wooing.

This little collection, which includes examples of some ancient ballads, may serve as illustration of the considerable body of folk-song still existing in all parts of the country, and awaiting collection.

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