The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Chants of Numbers

Source: Lina Eckenstein, Comparative Studies in Nursery Rhymes (London: Duckworth & Co., 1906), pp. 134-142.

See: Notes on the Twelve Days of Christmas



AMONG our traditional games, some consist of a dialogue in which the answer is set in cumulative form. These include the game known as The Twelve Days of Christmas, which was played on Twelfth-Day night by the assembled company before eating mince-pies and twelfth cake. In the game of Twelve Days each player in succession repeated the gifts of the day, and raised his fingers and hand according to the number which he named. Each answer included the one that had gone before, and forfeits were paid for each mistake that was made. (1894, II, 315.)

The oldest printed version of the words used in playing Twelve Days stands in one of the diminutive toy-books exhibited at South Kensington Museum by E. Pearson. These words begin:—

[Pg 135]The first day of Christmas, my true love gave me
A partridge in a pear-tree.
The second day of Christmas, my true love gave me
Two turtle-doves and a partridge in a pear-tree.

And so forth, enumerating three French hens, four colly birds, five gold rings, six geese a-laying, seven swans a-swimming, eight maids a-milking, nine drummers drumming, ten pipers piping, eleven ladies dancing, twelve lords leaping.

The same game is played in Scotland, where it is known as The Yule Days, but is carried on to thirteen.

The king sent his lady on the first Yule day
A papingo-aye [i.e. peacock or parrot]
Who learns my carol and carries it away?

The king sent his lady on the second Yule day
Two partridges and a papingo-aye.
(1870, p. 42.)

On the third day he sent three plovers; on the fourth, a goose that was grey; on the fifth, three starlings; on the sixth, three goldspinks; on the seventh, a bull that was brown; on the eighth, three ducks a-merry laying; on the ninth, three swans a-merry swimming; on the tenth, an Arabian baboon; on the eleventh, three hinds a-merry dancing; on the twelfth, two maids a-merry dancing;[Pg 136] on the thirteenth three stalks of corn.

In Cambresis, in the North of France, the same game is called Les dons de l'an, "the gifts of the year," but the gifts correspond in number with the number of the day. They are: one partridge, two turtle-doves, three wood-pigeons, four ducks flying, five rabbits trotting, six hares a-field, seven hounds running, eight shorn sheep, nine horned oxen, ten good turkeys, eleven good hams, twelve small cheeses (D. B., II, 125).

In the West of France the piece is described as a song. It is called La foi de la loi, that is, "the creed of authority," and is sung avec solennité. It begins:—

La premièr' parti' d'la foi de la loi,
Dit' la moi, frère Grégoire.
—Un bon farci sans os
—La deuxième parti' d'la foi de la loi,
Dit' le moi, frère Grégoire
—Deux ventres de veau,
Un bon farci sans os.
(B., II, 271.)

"The first part of the creed of authority, tell it me, Brother Gregory. A good stuffing without bones. The second part of the creed of authority ... two breasts of veal."

And[Pg 137] so forth, enumerating three joints of beef, four pig's trotters, five legs of mutton, six partridges with cabbage, seven spitted rabbits, eight plates of salad, nine plates of (? chapitre), ten full casks, eleven beautiful full-breasted maidens, twelve knights with their rapiers.

The same conceptions underlie a Languedoc chant, in which the numbers are, however, carried on to fifteen. The gifts in this case are made on the first fifteen days of the month of May:—

Le prumiè del més de mai,Qu'embouiarei à mai mio.
Uno perdic que bolo, que bolo.
(M. L., p. 486.)

"The first of the month of May, what shall I send to my lady love?—A partridge that flies and flies."

And similarly we read of two doves, three white pigeons, four ducks flying in the air, five rabbits, six hares, seven hunting dogs, eight white horses, nine horned oxen, ten bleating sheep, eleven soldiers coming from war, twelve maidens, thirteen white nosegays, fourteen white loaves, fifteen casks of wine.

The contents of these chants at first sound like nonsense,[Pg 138] but on looking at them more closely one notes that the gifts which they enumerate mostly consist of birds and beasts that are conceived as food. We know that the weather on Twelve Days was carefully observed, since the weather of the months of the ensuing year was prognosticated from that of the corresponding day of the twelve.[54] A like conception perhaps underlies these enumerations of food, which may refer to the representative sports of the months.

The game of Twelve Days in a degraded form is known as The Gaping Wide-mouthed Waddling Frog, in which the crux likewise consists of answering the question with rapidity and exactness. But words are purposely chosen that are difficult to enunciate and to remember. The result is a string of nonsense. The words used in playing The Gaping Wide-mouthed Waddling Frog were first printed in a toy-book of the eighteenth century. Persons who are still living remember it in this form as a Christmas game. As in playing Twelve Days, the players sat in a circle,[Pg 139] a dialogue ensued, and the answers were given in cumulative form. He who made a mistake gave a forfeit.

Buy this of me:—What is it?
The gaping wide-mouthed waddling frog.

Buy this of me:—What is it?
Two pudding ends will choke a dog,
With a gaping wide-mouthed waddling frog.

Buy this of me:—What is it?
Three monkeys tied to a clog,
Two pudding ends will choke a dog, etc.

The answer to the last question stood as follows:—

Twelve huntsmen with horns and hounds,
Hunting over other men's grounds;
Eleven ships sailing o'er the main,
Some bound for France and some for Spain,
I wish them all safe home again;

Ten comets in the sky,
Some low and some high;

Nine peacocks in the air,
I wonder how they all came there,
I do not know and I don't care;

Eight joiners in joiner's hall
Working with their tools and all.

Seven lobsters in a dish,
As fresh as any heart could wish;

Six beetles against the wall [or six spiders in the wall],
Close by an old woman's apple stall;
[Pg 140]

Five puppies by our bitch Ball
Who daily for their breakfast call;

Four horses stuck in a bog;

Three monkeys tied to a clog;

Two pudding ends would choke a dog;

With a gaping wide-mouthed waddling frog.

Many rhymes that originated in these nonsense verses have found their way into nursery collections. Halliwell printed the following lines as a separate nursery rhyme:—

Eight ships on the main,
I wish them all safe back again;

Seven eagles in the air,
I wonder how they all came there;
I don't know, nor I don't care.

Six spiders on the wall,
Close to an old woman's apple stall;

Five puppies in Highgate hall,
Who daily for their breakfast call;

Four mares stuck in a bog,
Three monkeys tied to a log,
Two pudding ends will choke a dog,
With a gaping wide mouthed waddling frog.
(1842, p.246.)

Halliwell also printed some utterly debased rhymes, in which, however, numbers are still combined with the objects that are named. Among these rhymes is the following:—

[Pg 141]One old Oxford ox opening oysters;
Two teetotums totally tired of trying to trot to Tadbury;
Three tall tigers tippling tenpenny tea;
Four fat friars fanning fainting flies;

And so on to

Twelve typographical typographers typically translating types.(1846, p. 111.)

Other rhymes of this kind depend for their consistency on alliteration only, such as:—

Robert Rowley rolled a round roll round,
A round roll Robert Rowley rolled round;
Where rolled the round roll Robert Rowley rolled round.
(1842, p. 128.)

Robert Rowley is perhaps a name for thunder, since a rhyme recited in the North of England as a charm against thunder is:—

Rowley, Rowley, Rattley-bags;
Take the lasses and leave the lads.
(1876, p. 15.)

Another rhyme of this class begins:—

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper, etc.(1842, p. 129.)

And the time-honoured rhyme, "When a twister a twisting," etc., has been traced back by Halliwell[Pg 142] to a collection of 1674. This has a French parallel:—

Si un cordonnier accordant veut accorder sa corde, etc.

I do not know if the English or the French version is the older one.


Footnote 54. Frazer, J. G., The Golden Bough, 1900, p. 143; Rolland, Almanach des traditions populaires, 1883, Jan. 1-12.  Return

Editor's Note:

See: Eckenstein - Chants of the Creed.

See also The Twelve Days of Christmas - JFSS 5 (1916); Five versions of the carol, including sheet music, plus a discussion about the carol, from Cecil J. Sharp, A. G. Gilchrist and Lucy E. Broadwood, “Forfeit Songs; Cumulative Songs; Songs of Marvels and of Magical Animals,” Journal of the Folk-Song Society, Vol. 5, No. 20 (English Folk Dance + Song Society, Nov., 1916), pp. 277-296. Article Stable URL:

Here are the five "accumulative" songs printed by Mr. Sharp in One Hundred English Folksongs (1916):

Some other counting songs on this site include:

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