Twelve Days of Christmas
Notes on the Festival and the Carol
The twelve days of Christmas,1 as a festival, have a long history. According to one source, it was first mentioned as a festal tide by the eastern Father, Ephraem Syrus, at the end of the fourth century, and was declared to be such by the western Council of Tours in 567 A.D. The laws of Ethelred (991-1016) ordained it to be a time of peace and concord among Christian men, when all strife must cease — perhaps the beginning of the traditional Christmas truces observed up through World War I. The twelve days count from Christmas day to the feast of the Epiphany, January 6.
This song has its origins as a children's game of forfeits; if one of the children fail to recall the full listing, then the child shall pay a small "forfeit." In his earliest editions of The Nursery Rhymes of England, James Orchard Halliwell gives the following:
THE first day of Christmas
My mother sent to me,
A partridge in a pear-tree.
The second day of Christmas...
Two turtle doves
Three French hens
Four canary birds
Five gold rings,
Six geese a laying,
Seven swans a swimming,
Eight ladies dancing,
Nine lords a leaping,
Ten ships a sailing,
Eleven ladies spinning,
Twelve bells ringing,
As a song, Elizabeth Poston reports that an early version dates back to a thirteenth-century manuscript in the Library of Trinity College, Cambridge (B. 14. 39) entitled 'Twelfth Day'. According to Husk, more modern versions were frequently found in the broadsides printed at Newcastle at various periods during the last hundred and fifty years. On one such broadside, it was described as "An Old English Carol," but properly speaking, it is not a carol but a Christmas song.
Several sources report that it was first published in Mirth without Mischief, a children's book published in London about 1780, and is said to have been first published in a Christmas song collection by Husk in 1868.
It's origin, however, was probably not England, but, rather, France as a forfeits song, celebrated on Twelfth Night (Epiphany, January 6th). One source states that at least three French versions are known (but that source did not give any examples). A version is also known in Scotland; see Chambers’s Popular Songs of Scotland.
Douglas Brice notes that it has always been such a favourite with the French, and thinks that it may be among the songs of the troubadours of Languedoc which had had such a great influence on European music over the centuries. "In fact," he writes, "it remind us of a "chanson de geste" that has run to seed. The snatch of melody that accompanies the enumeration of the gifts, ending as it does with the Imperfect Cadence (IV-V) is almost identical with that used by the French minstrels of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries."
Over time, the song became a favorite, not just on Twelfth Night, but throughout the Christmas season. In modern times, the song is usually sung as twelve consecutive verses. But, over the years, how it was played or performed also evolved. Originally, it was not just a song, but a memory-and-forfeits game.
Sung and Played
Sabin Baring Gould writes that the song was "a favourite among children in Devon where it is called the Nawden Song. The giving of forfeits was customary by those who could not remember the list of gifts."
Husk describes how it was practiced in 1860's London:
The practice was for one person in the company to recite the first three lines; a second, the four following; and so on; the person who failed in repeating her portion correctly being subject to some trifling forfeit. The lady who was the favoured recipient of the gifts enumerated must have required no small extent of shelf or table room for their accommodation, as at the end of the Christmas festivities she must have found herself in possession of twelve partridges in pear trees, twenty-two turtle-doves, thirty French hen, thirty-six colley (i.e., black) birds, forty gold rings, forty-two laying geese, forty-two swimming swans, forty milk-maids, thirty-six drummers, thirty pipers, twenty-two dancing ladies, and twelve leaping lords; in all three hundred and sixty-four articles, one for each day of the year save one.
Brice wrote that in London 12 players were played the game, and each player, having contributed his gift was required to recite all the gifts previously enumerated bringing the list to an end with the words "And a partridge in a pear tree," in which the entire group joined as a chorus. If a player failed to repeat the gifts in the correct order, a forfeit was demanded of him.
Brice also notes that Lucy Broadwood found that the more usual method of performing this carol was "to begin with the 'twelfth day', and in subsequent verses to omit one day at a time in reversed numerical order until the second day is reached; then the process is reverses, the days added one by one till the singer reaches the verse he began with."
In some rural areas, the song was sung in 23 verses! The practice was to start with the 12th verse, and moving backwards to the 1st verse, and then back consecutively to the 12th. In other areas, they sang the 23 verses starting with the 1st verse, progressing to the 12th verse, and returning.
Cecil Sharp gave this slightly different description:
The second verse begins:
On the eleventh day of Christmas
my true Love sent to me
Eleven bulls a-beating, etc.,
and so on till the twelfth verse, as given in the text. The process is then reversed, the verses being gradually increased in length, so that the thirteenth verse is:
On the second day of Christmas
my true Love gave to me
Two turtle doves
One goldie ring,
And the part of a June apple-tree.
In this way the twenty-third verse is triumphantly reached, and that, except for the last line, is the same is the first verse.
Sharp noted that these words are also used as a Children's Game. One of Halliwell's versions (p. 63) is still used by children in Somerset, and Lady Gomme gives a London variant (Dictionary of British Folk-Lore, volume i, p. 315), besides reprinting three other forms.
Sharp also noted "Country singers are very fond of accumulative songs of this type, regarding them as tests of endurance and memory, and sometimes of sobriety!"
Neil Lomax gives this description: The players sat in a row, the first one singing the first round of the tune, the second the second, the third the third, and so on, until one made a mistake or name the gift wrongly. This player paid a forfeit. The song went on and on and the game continued until a number of forfeits had been accumulated. The forfeits were then counted and each owner had to redeem his fault by performing some task.
Lomax also wrote that several versions of this game have also been noted in the mountains of East Tennessee, but it normally occurs as a song [citing Children Go Where I Send Thee].
Different Places, Different Lyrics
In the same way that many ways of performing this song and game evolved, so there were many changes to the words. This "traditional" version, given by Husk in 1868 gives the following:
A partridge in a pear tree.
Three French hens,
Four colley birds,
Five golden rings.
Six geese a-laying,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Eight maids a-milking,
Nine drummers drumming,
Ten pipers piping,
Eleven ladies dancing,
Twelve lords a-leaping.
This is the same listing as given by Halliwell, Nursery Rhymes of England (Edition of 1886, pp. 184-188) who adds the note that "Each child in succession repeats the gifts of the day, and forfeits for each mistake. This accumulative process is a favorite with children: in early writers, such as Homer, the repetition of messages, &c. pleases on the same principle." It should be observed that this version differs from the versions given by Halliwell in the first through fourth editions of his Nursery Rhymes (1842-1846; see above). The editions of 1843 and 1886 are available at the Internet Archive; the editions of 1846, 1858 and 1886 are available at Google Books.
Sabin Baring Gould, however, gives this enumeration, with some other renderings.
1. Partridge, in common with many other speckled birds, was an emblem of the evil one. Pear tree has some magical properties associated with Christmas eve, although pear tree — perdrix (pertriz) in the French version — carried into the English language may have sounded like pear tree, ‘joli perdrix’ is’ a ‘pretty juniper’ or ‘part of a juniper tree’. [See Below]
2. Two turtle doves obviously has some reference to the ‘true loves’. Having started with birds, thereafter birds were variously listed.
3. French Hens may simply mean rare (or foreign) fowl. [Or: "Three Britten Chains" or "Three Britten Hens," according to Sharp]
4. Colley-birds are blackbirds.
5. Gold rings—it seems likely that as this comes among the list of birds it may mean ‘goldspinks' which are goldfinches. [See below]
6. Geese a-laying —common to all versions.
7. Swans a-swimming (steers a-running).
8. Hares a-running (swans a-swimming; deers a-running), etc.
9. Ladies dancing (drummers drumming; lords a-leaping).
10. Lords a-playing (pipers piping; ladies dancing; bells a-ringing).
11. Bears a-baiting (ladies dancing; bulls a-bleating).
12. Bulls a-roaring (lords’ a-leaping; cocks a-crowing, bells a-ringing; ships a-sailing).
Brice noted that Sharp collected the following options to "a partridge in a pear tree": "part of a Juniper Tree", "part of a June-Apple Tree," and "pass through a Juniper Tree." Sharp added that 'June Apple-Tree' may or may not be a corruption of "Juniper-Tree," but the singer explained it by saying that it meant a tree whose fruit kept sound and good till the following June.
Keyte and Parrott note that the origin of the pear tree may be perdix (or perdrix?), French for 'partridge." They go on to state that
... the partridge and the pear tree have been the subject of arcane speculation: the partridge as a symbol of the devil, who reveals to Herod that the Virgin Mary is hiding behind a sheaf of corn; the folk belief that a girl who walks backwards towards a pear tree on Christmas Eve and walks round it thrice will see the image of her future husband; etc.
in a similar vein, Brice notes that "in folk-lore the pear is an emblem of fertility and the partridge an emblem of the Evil One". He also notes that the pipe and drum have always been regarded as symbolizing the harmonious relationship between the good Christian and his Creator. He concludes that "The presence of the Evil one in the genealogical tree would appear to be a reference to Man in his fallen state awaiting Redemption through the Passion of Christ."
Concerning the "five gold rings, several authorities note that the gold rings are possibly a corruption of ‘goldspinks’ (Scottish dialect for goldfinches) or ‘gulder’ (a gulder-cock is a turkey — frequently appearing in the original French). One source wrote that the rings refer to the rings around the neck of a pheasant.
Routley in The University Carol Book (Carol 204n) and the editors of The New Oxford Book of Carols (Carol 133n) note that the melody for the "five gold rings" was added by Frederic Austin (1872-1952) in an arrangement published by Novello, 1909.
There was this review of the Austin arrangement in The Musical Times, Nov. 1, 1909, p. 722:
'The twelve days of Christmas' is a clever arrangement of a traditional song of the cumulative or 'House that Jack built' type. 'What my love sent to me' on the first, second, third day of Christmas, and so on down to the twelfth, reveals a constantly increasing store of affection and generosity. The first day's gift is 'a partridge in a pear-tree'; that of the twelfth comprises 'Twelve drummers drumming, eleven pipers playing, ten lords a-leaping, nine ladies dancing, eight maids a-milking, seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying, five gold rings, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle-doves and a partridge in a pear-tree.' No explanation is given of any subtle significance that may underlie the lover's wayward choice of tokens of his regard. To the captivating, if elusive, tune of this song Mr. Austin has added an accompaniment that is always ingenious, especially where it suggests the air that is being played by the eleven pipers, always varied and interesting, and never out of place. The song is suitable for a medium voice.
On Dec. 1, 1916, The Musical Times (p. 533) ran an advertisement for Austin's arrangement for Two Shillings. There was also an advertisement by Novello for the Seymour Dicker arrangement of “The Twelve Days of Christmas, Traditional Cumulative Folk-Song. Arranged for Twelve Voices or Twelve Groups of Voices.” The price set by Novello was two pence. It was advertised to be “A Sure Success for School Christmas Concerts.”
In 1917, there was an interesting article in The Journal of American Folk-Lore concerning The Twelve Days of Christmas, commencing with the version copied down by G. L. Kittredge, Dec. 30, 1877, from the singing of Mrs. Sarah G. Lewis of Barnstable, Mass. (who learned this version from her grandmother). The first verse begins:
The first day of Christmas my true
love sent to me
Some part of a juniper tree,
And some part of a juniper tree.
Thereafter the song generally follows the usual enumeration of French hens, colly birds, five gold rings, etc., except for “two turkle doves,” a most unusual spelling.
The article also discusses other variants, and cites numerous references, including Halliwell, Chambers, etc. See Franz Boas, ed., The Journal of American Folk-Lore, Vol. XXX (Lancaster, PA: American Folk-Lore Society, 1917), pp. 365-367.
Robert Chambers reproduced an interesting version of this song titled "The Yule Days" in his Popular Rhymes of Scotland (1870) which begins:
The king sent his lady on the first Yule day,
What learns my carol and carries it away.
He notes that the papingo-aye is a peacock. This rhyme concludes:
The king sent his lady on the thirteenth Yule day,
Three stalks o' merry corn, three maids a-merry dancing,
Three hinds a-merry hunting, an Arabian baboon,
Three swans a-merry swimming,
Three ducks a-merry laying, a bull that was brown,
Three goldspinks, three starlings, a Goose that was gray,
Three plovers, three partridges, a papingo-aye;
Wha learns my carol and carries it away.
Cecil Sharp and Charles Marson in the Second Series of Folk Songs from Somerset, give two melodies to one set of lyrics, which begins:
On the twelfth day of Christmas my true Love sent to me
Twelve bells a-ringing
Eleven bulls a-beating,
Ten asses racing,
Nine ladies dancing,
Eight boys a-singing,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five goldie rings,
Four colley birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves
And the part of a mistletoe bough.
The twelfth verse provides:
On the first day of Christmas my true Love sent to me,
One goldie ring, And the part of a June apple tree.
Rev. Ray Broadus Browne, in Alabama Folk Lyric: A Study in Origins and Media of Dissimination (Popular Press, 1979; pp. 110-111), also gives a variation on The Twelve Days of Christmas whose first verse was:
On the first day of Christmas
my truest love said to me:
Partridge on pear tree.
This version ran to ten verses (the third of which was forgotten by the original singer), concluding with "ten mules braying." The full enumeration includes:
Partridge on a pear tree
Two turtle doves”
Three ... [forgotten]”
Four blue pigeons
Five gold rings
Six men singing
Seven swans swimming
Eight hens cackling
Nine geese waving
Ten mules braying.
The Twelve Days of Christmas is but one of many "number" or "counting" songs that occur throughout medieval England and Europe. Others include
As A Catechism
There is the widely circulated story that this song was written in England as a "catechism song" to help young Catholics learn the tenets of their faith during a long period of religious repression. This originated with information published by Fr. Hal Stockert in 1982, and later published on the World Wide Web as Origin of the "Twelve Days of Christmas": An Underground Catechism" (1995). Fr. Stockert wrote that
I found this information while I was researching for an entirely unrelated project which required me to go to the Latin texts of the sources pertinent to my research. Among those primary documents there were letters from Irish priests, mostly Jesuits, writing back to the motherhouse at Douai-Rheims, in France, mentioning this purely as an aside, and not at all as part of the main content of the letters.
He has also noted that the original research was lost in a flood. See: Catholic Culture, Origin of the Twelve Days of Christmas for additional details and comments by Fr. Hal; see also Ace Collins, Stories Behind The Best-Loved Songs of Christmas (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001).
Usually, the explanation runs as follows:
The "True Love" that gives the gifts refers to God the Father. The "Me" who gets the gifts represents the baptized Christian.
Most commentators discount this version concerning the origin of the song for the fundamental reason that the most of the elements were common to both the Church of Rome and the Church of England, and because the song probably originated in France well before this time in England's history.
However, it is certainly possible that the original song was adapted as a catechism song for use by persecuted English Catholics. Considering the large number of variants and variations that have occurred over the years, this is not an unreasonable possibility.
It should be emphasized that Fr. Stockert's intent was to publish this information "simply as some delicious tidbit I thought the world would be delighted to share over a holiday season." Since then, he has been the target of some unfair and occasionally vitriolic criticism.
In short, whether or not it originated as a catechism song, it certainly can be used as one if you find this helpful in your devotions or faith.
1. In England, the 12 days of Christmas are usually reckoned to be December 26 through January 6, inclusively. There is, however, an older belief that a day begins at nightfall, not midnight or daybreak. According to Clement A. Miles:
Sometimes Christmas is reckoned as one of the Twelve Days, sometimes not. In the former case, of course, the Epiphany is the thirteenth day. In England we call the Epiphany Twelfth Day, in Germany it is generally called Thirteenth; in Belgium and Holland it is Thirteenth; in Sweden it varies, but is usually Thirteenth. Sometimes then the Twelve Days are spoken of, sometimes the Thirteen. 'The Twelve Nights;' in accordance with the old Teutonic mode of reckoning by nights, is a natural and correct term."
See: Clement A. Miles, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan (T. Fisher Unwin, 1912; reprinted by Dover Publications, New York, 1976 under the title Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance). Return
A Few of the Many Parodies:
The Twelve Gifts of Christmas (copyright, Allan Sherman)
As is the case with many parodies, there are versions that cannot be reproduced on a family-safe web site such as this one.
Franz Boas, ed., The Journal of American Folk-Lore, Vol. XXX (Lancaster, PA: American Folk-Lore Society, 1917), pp. 365-367.
Douglas Brice, The Folk Carol of England (London: Herberg Jenkins, 1967)
Ray Broadus Browne, in Alabama Folk Lyric: A Study in Origins and Media of Dissimination (Popular Press, 1979), pp. 110-111.
Catholic Culture, Origin of the Twelve Days of Christmas
Robert Chambers, ed., Popular Rhymes of Scotland. New Edition (London: W. & R. Chambers, 1870)
Ronald M. Clancy, Best-Loved Christmas Carols (North Cape May, NJ: Christmas Classics, Ltd., 2000)
Ace Collins, Stories Behind The Best-Loved Songs of Christmas (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001)
Earthly Delights: Xmas Carols
William C. Egan, The History of Carols
Sabine Baring Gould, Folk Songs of the West (1889)
Leigh Grant, Twelve Days of Christmas: A Celebration and History (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995). Beautifully illustrated with excellent notes.
James Orchard Halliwell, ed., The Nursery Rhymes of England (London: Frederick Warne and Co., 1886), pp. 184-188.
William Henry Husk, Songs of the Nativity (London: John Camden Hotten, 1868)
Neil Lomax, Folk Songs of North America (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Dolphin Books, 1975)
Clement A. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance (T. Fisher Unwin, 1912 under the title Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagen; reprinted by Dover Publications, New York, 1976)
The Musical Times, Nov. 1, 1909, p. 722.
The Musical Times, Dec. 1, 1916, p. 533.
Elizabeth Poston, The Second Penguin Book of Christmas Carols (Penguin: Hammondsworth, 1970)
Erik Routley, The English Carol (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959)
Erik Routley, University Carol Book (Brighton: H. Freeman & Co., 1961)
Cecil J. Sharp, ed., One Hundred English Folksongs (Oliver Ditson Company, Boston, 1916), #96
Cecil J. Sharp and Charles L. Marson, Folk Songs from Somerset, Second Series (London: Simpkin & Co., Ltd., 1911)
William L. Simon, ed., The Reader's Digest Merry Christmas Songbook (Pleasantville, NY: Readers Digest Association, revised 2003)
Fr. Hal Stockert, Origin of the "Twelve Days of Christmas": An Underground Catechism (1995), at the Catholic Information Network.
William Studwell, The Christmas Carol Reader (New York: Harrington Park Press, 1995)
Several of these authors give additional sources, which include:
Northumbrian Minstrelsy (p. 129) where the song is described as "one of the quaintest of Christmas carols now relegated to the nursery as a forfeit game, where each child in succession has to repeat the gifts of the day and incurs a forfeit for every error."
"The Jolly Gosshawk" (or Gross-hawk or Groshawk)
Journal of the Folk-Song Society, vol. 5, pp. 277-81, which has five variant tunes and notes by Cecil Sharp, Annie Gilchrist, and Lucy Broadwood
Folk Song Journal, 20, p 280.
The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, 1951, p. 122.
See, generally: Twelfth Day Ceremonies (Wm. Sandys) and January 6 - Epiphany (Wm. Hone, The Every Day Book)