The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Twelve Days of Christmas

Notes on  the Festival and the Carol

Origins

The twelve days of Christmas,1 as a festival, have a long history. Being the days between Christmas Day and the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6, 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.

See, generally: Twelfth Day Ceremonies (Wm. Sandys) and January 6 - Epiphany (Wm. Hone, The Every Day Book)

J. Collingwood Bruce and John Stokoe observed that "The twelve days, extending from Christmas Day to Epiphany, where usually amongst our ancestors 'the' days of the whole year wherein to make merry and fraternize in mirth and good fellowship."

And concerning this song, they wrote:

The is 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 accumulative process has always been a favourite game with children, and in early writers from Homer downwards this repetition is often employed. ...  [T]he total number of gifts amount to three hundred and sixty-five — one for each day of the year; the twelve pear trees being in commemoration of the twelve days of Christmas.

Source: J. Collingwood Bruce and John Stokoe, A Collection of the Ballads, Melodies, and Small-pipe Tunes of Northumbria. (Commonly known as Northumbrian Minstrelsy) (Published by the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle-Upon_Tyne, 1882), "The Twelve Days of Christmas," pp. 129-131.

In time, the game would become a song, popular in Great Britain, Canada, the US, and elsewhere in the world.

In the earliest known book printing of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," Mirth Without Mischief (ca. 1780), we have these lyrics:

On the twelfth day of Christmas,
My true love sent to me
Twelve lords a leaping,
Eleven ladies dancing,
Ten pipers piping,
Nine drummers drumming,
Eight maids a milking,
Seven swans a swimming,
Six geese a laying,
Five gold rings.
Four colley birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves and
A partridge in a pear tree.

This is also the version printed by Halliwell in his Fifth Edition of 1886. However, in his earliest editions of The Nursery Rhymes of England,

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,

In the Second Edition (1843), "The First Day of Christmas" was rhyme # CCLXXII, and occurred on pp. 155-156. In the Fifth Edition (1886), it was rhyme # CCCXLVI, occurring on pages 184-188.

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. Harding B 25(378).jpg (102324 bytes)On one such broadside, it was described as "An Old English Carol," but properly speaking, it is not a carol but a Christmas song. An example of such a Broadside, from the Harding Collection, was retrieved from The Bodleian's Broadside Ballads Online (Harding B25(378). The Newcastle printer was "Angus" and the date was between 1774 and 1825. The last verse, slightly different than the early Halliwell version given above, was:

The twelfth day of Christmas,
My true love sent to me
Twelve lords a leaping,
Eleven ladies dancing,
Ten pipers piping,
Nine drummers drumming,
Eight maids a milking,
Seven-swans a swimming,
Six geese a laying,
Five gold rings,
Four colley birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves, and
A partridge in a pear tree.

Several sources report that the first book publication was 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 book by Husk in 1868. [See: The Twelve Days of Christmas - Version 1]

It's origin, however, was probably not England, but, rather, France as a forfeits game and 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).

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, and for adults as well as children. In modern times, the song is usually sung as twelve consecutive verses, beginning with the first verse. But, over the years, how it was played or performed also evolved.

 

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."  Halliwell observed (in the Second Edition of 1843):

Each child in succession repeats the gifts of the day, and forfeits for each mistake. This accumulative process is a favourite with children ; in early writers, such as Homer, the repetition of messages, &c. pleases on the same principle.

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!  Similar to the practice described by Broadwood, 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) was still used by children in Somerset (at that time), and Lady Gomme gives a London variant (Dictionary of British Folk-Lore, volume i, p. 315), besides reprinting three other forms. See: Gomme – Twelve Days of Christmas.

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 counting 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.
Two turtle-doves,
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 was also the version reproduced on the Broadside Harding B25(378) printed by Angus in Newcastle between 1774 and 1825 (above).

Likewise this same listing — although our partridge is now "upon" a pear tree — was posted to Notes and Queries by Robert S. Salmon of Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1855. He noted:

The following lines form, as I am inclined to think, one of the productions "so puerile and simple" alluded to by Brand in his Popular Antiquities. See Bohn's edition, 1849, vol. i. p. 490. Rude, however, and monotonous as these lines are, they occupy a prominent place in the recollections of most of the present generation who are — ". . . . native here. And to the manner born " — it having been, up to within twenty years (ca. 1835), extremely popular as a schoolboy's Christmas chant....

Source: Robert S. Salmon, "Christmas Jingle" (The Twelve Days of Christmas), Notes and Queries, Series 1, Vol. 12 (December 29, 1855), pp. 506-507.

There was a footnote to the article asking  "What is the meaning of 'collie birds'?" In square brackets, it was noted: "A blackbird is called by this name in Somersetshire."

This same listing — except that the partridge is on, not in, a pear tree —  is found in Northumbrian Minstrelsy (1882), where it is observed:

The is 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 accumulative process has always been a favourite game with children, and in early writers from Homer downwards this repetition is often employed.

The twelve days, extending from Christmas Day to Epiphany, where usually amongst our ancestors the days of the whole year wherein to make merry and fraternize in mirth and good fellowship.

The music of the first and last verses only are here given, as each verse not only commemorates the gifts of a day, but also re-enumerates those of the preceding days, requiring no slight effort of memory on the part of those who try it. The melody for each gift is the same in all the repetitions, so that the 1st verse contains the whole of the tune, and the total number of gifts amount to three hundred and sixty-five — one for each day of the year; the twelve pear trees being in commemoration of the twelve days of Christmas.

12_Days-Northumbrian-129.jpg (53723 bytes) 12_Days-Northumbrian-130.jpg (55468 bytes) 12_Days-Northumbrian-131.jpg (63252 bytes)

Source: J. Collingwood Bruce and John Stokoe, "The Twelve Days of Christmas," in Northumbrian Minstrelsy: A Collection of the Ballads, Melodies, and Small-pipe Tunes of Northumbria. (Published by the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, 1882), pp. 129-131. And see John Stokoe, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" in the continuing series of articles titled "The North=Country Garland of Song," appearing in The Monthly Chronicle of North-Country Lore and Legend, Vol. II, No. 11 (Printed and Published for Proprietors of the "Newcastle Weekly Chronicle" by Walter Scott, Newcastle-On-Tyne, January, 1888), pp. 41-42. In that article, he also noted:

This old carol was early in the century a favourite New Year's pastime in the North of England, but has almost died out of memory. Our copy of the music was originally collected by the late Mr. John Bell, of Gates head, about eighty years ago [circa 1808].

These lyrics are also quoted, with attribution to John Stokoe, by M. C. (Marie Clothilde) Balfour, County Folk-Lore, Vol. IV. Examples of Printed Folk-Lore Concerning Northumberland (Published for the Folk-Lore Society by David Nutt, London, 1904), pp. 138-139.

The same lyrics are found in W. G. Whittaker, ed., North Countrie Ballads, Songs and Pipe-Tunes. Part I. (London: J. Curwen & Sons, Ltd., 1921), pp. 120-123.

And, this is the same listing as given by Halliwell, Nursery Rhymes of England (Fifth 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." It should be observed that this version differs from the versions given by Halliwell in the First through Fourth editions of his Nursery Rhymes (1841-1846) (above). Halliwell's editions of 1843 and 1886 are available at the Internet Archive; the editions of 1846, 1858 and 1886 are available at Google Books.

Writing in circa 1875, Georgiana C. Clark, reproduced this version of a Christmas Day Game of Forfeits, starting with the first verse, and concluding with the twelfth verse:

The first day of Christmas
My true love sent to me
A partridge in a pear-tree.

The twelfth day of Christmas,
My true love sent to me
Twelve lords leaping
Eleven ladies dancing,
Ten piper piping,
Nine drummers drumming,
Eight maids milking,
Seven swans swimming,
Six geese laying,
Five gold rinngs,
Four colour'd birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves, and
A partridge in a pear-tree.

Source: Georgiana C. Clark, Jolly Games for Happy Homes. (London: Dean & Son, ca. 1875?), pp. 238–242.

Sabin Baring Gould, writing in 1886, 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: "Five Britten Chains" or "Five 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 Cecil Sharp collected the following options to "a partridge in a pear 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 also noted 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."

It has been suggested that the French phrase for "A partridge in a pear tree" could be a French play on words. It's been written that the French for partridge is "perdix," and the French for pear tree is "perdrix." The French phrase, then, would contain some form of "perdix, perdrix." Is there any traction to this explanation? Your guess is as good as mine, and I don't have a clue (but it is an intriguing option).

Another suggestion is that in earlier times, a common decoration was a bird cage, called a "pear tree," into which a mechanical bird was housed — hence, a partridge in a pear tree. Again, any traction to this explanation? And again, your guess is as good as mine.

Note: Both of these two suggestions come from an interesting line of comments in the "Why 'in a pear-tree?'" thread at the Mudcat Cafe.

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).  Many sources write that the rings refer to the gold 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. This arrangement is said by the editor of the excellent Wikipedia article on The Twelve Days of Christmas to be the standard form of the melody heard since then.

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 'The 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 1892, W. Minto gave us this version, possibly from Newcastle:

On the twelfth, twelfth day of Christmas my true love brought to me
Twelve ladies dancing,
Eleven lads a-louping,
Ten drummers drumming,
Nine pipers playing,
Eight maids a-milking,
Seven swans a-swimming
Six geese a-laying
FIVE GOLD RINGS!!!
Four corley birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle-doves, and
A very pretty peacock upon a pear tree!

Source: W. Minto (ed.), Autobiographical Notes on the Life of William Bell Scott, Vol. i. (New York: Harper, 1892), pp. 186–187.

Cecil Sharp and Charles Marson in the Second Series of Folk Songs from Somerset (1911) give two melodies to one set of lyrics:

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.

The next example is an excerpt from William Henderson, Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders (Folk-lore Society, 1879), p. 71.

"From Mr. Joseph Crawhall, of Newcastle, I have received the following song. It was given to him by a friend who called it a carol, and said that in his early days he used to sing it every Christmas with his sisters:

"The first day of Christmas my true love sent to me
A partridge upon a pear tree.

The second day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Two turtle doves and a partridge upon a pear tree.

The third day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Three French hens, two turtle doves, &c. &c.

The fourth day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Four curley birds, three French hens, &c. &c.

The fifth day of Christmas my true love sent to mc
Five gold rings, four curley birds, &c. &c.

The sixth day of Christmas my true love sent to mc
Six geese laying, five golden rings, &c. &c.

The seventh day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Seven swans swimming, six geese laying, &c. &c.

The eighth day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Eight maids, milking, seven swans swimming, &e. &c.

The ninth day of Christmas my true love sent to mc
Nine drummers drumming, eight maids milking, &c. &c.

The tenth day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Ten pipers piping, nine drummers drumming, eight maids milking, seven swans swimming, six geese laying, five gold rings, four curley birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge upon a pear tree."

This example is from The Merrie Heart, A Collection of Favourite Nursery Rhymes, by M.E.G. (London: Cassell, Petter, and Galpin, 18??), pp. 140-143. The full song is given, but since we all know that part by now, we'll skip to the very last:

The twelfth day of Christmas
My mother sent to me
Twelve bells a-ringing,
eleven ladies spinning,
ten ships a-sailing,
nine lords a-leaping,
eight ladies dancing,
seven swans a-swimming,
six geese a-laying,
five gold rings,
four canary birds,
three French hens,
two turtle-doves,
and a partridge in a pear-tree.

The same song is also found in Cock Robin, And Other Nursery Rhymes and Jingles (London, Paris & New York: Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co., 1883), pp. 63-66.

The following is from The Cliftonian: A Magazine Edited by Members of Clifton, Volume 1, Issue 1 (Bristol, England: Clifton College, March, 1869), pp. 145-6.

CHRISTMAS CAROLS.

Having spent some part of my Christmas holidays in a retired little town in Gloucestershire, where many old customs and superstitions still linger, I of course came in for a good share of carol-singing. These, however, differed very much from the irreverent and discordant caterwauling (I cannot call it anything else) which greet our ears evening after evening in' our suburban streets. For irreverent they could not well be, since sacred words were not attempted, and discordant they certainly were not, seeing that the singers were composed chiefly of the members of the choir. The favourite carol in particular attracted my attention, from its peculiarity and the utter absurdity of the words; they ran as follows:—

"The first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
A partridge in a pear-tree.
"The second day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
Two turtle-doves, and a partridge in a pear-tree."

And proceeds in this ascending manner until on the twelfth day of Christmas the young lady receives the following astounding tribute of true love :—

"The twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
Twelve bells a-ringing,
Eleven badgers baiting,
Ten lords a-leaping,
Nine ladies dancing
Eight hares a-running,
Seven swans swimming
Six ducks a-laying,
Five gold rings,
Four colley birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle-doves,
And a partridge in a pear-tree."

As it stands this sounds perfectly absurd; and so I always esteemed it, until in a book I was reading the other day, I came across its exact fac-simile in French; and it was stated that this was one of the songs sung by the Canadian "voyageurs" or lake traders. What the connection between the Canadian settlers and the little town in Gloucestershire can possibly be it is hard to imagine. It is certain that the Lord of the Manor of that part of Gloucestershire came over from Normandy with our William I, and the names of some of the gentry about there give clear proofs of Norman origin. "Why then may we not suppose that some rovers from the same part of Normandy may have migrated to Lower Canada, carrying with them their national songs? This connection too would seem to afford a little clue to the absurdity of the words: for, keeping in mind their probably French origin, what is more natural to suppose than that "pear-tree" is a corruption of perdrix, so that "a partridge in a pear-tree" is really only a repetition of the same word? and instead of taxing our knowledge of ornithology to find a parallel to a "colley-bird," why not suppose that "colley" is a corruption of collet, hence we at once have a bird with a ruff, i. e., the ruff-pigeon. If too the words be really of such ancient origin as this supposition would infer, it is curious to mark the peculiar delicacy of expression. For instance, there is no difficulty in seeing the meaning of such expressions as "bells-a-ringing," "lords-a-leaping," "ladies dancing," and above all the "gold ring," but still they are put with such a quaint and simple sense of propriety, which cannot but excite our wonder at that early period. All this, however, is pure supposition, and if any of the readers of "The Cliftonian" can afford me any certain information on the subject, they will much oblige.

AN ANTIQUARIAN.

Editor's Note: I find it odd that the "Antiquarian" found it 'hard to imagine' the connection between Canadian settlers and the town of Gloucestershire. I would suspect emigration from England to Canada is the connection, as is the case with American versions.

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,
A papingo-aye;
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.

 

Crossing the Atlantic to Canada and the US

The song has been very popular in both Canada and the United States since at least the late 1700s and early 1800s. In a note published by John Rodemeyer, Jr., in 1902, he wrote:

The New England custom during those early years of the present century was to observe Christmas from December 25 to January 5, the twelve days being generally given up to receiving and returning family visits. Contemporary with this custom was the belief, inculcated in the minds of the children, that if they would visit the cow stables at midnight of Christmas Eve, they would see the cattle kneel before the mangers.

A poem of the twelve days shows the gift for the first day of Christmas to be a parrot on a juniper tree instead of a "partridge on a pear tree."

The verse for the twelfth day, which embodied the entire list of days and "gifts" was as follows:

The twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me
twelve guns shooting,
eleven bears chasing,
ten men hunting,
nine fiddlers playing,
eight ladies dancing,
seven swans swimming,
six chests of linen,
five gold rings,
four coffee bowls,
three French hens,
two turtle doves
and a parrot on a juniper tree.

Source: John S. Rodemeyer, "Christmas, The Twelve days of," in Edward Deems, Holy Days and Holidays. (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1902), p. 431.

The Journal of American Folk-Lore has given us a number of articles and variants of this song. In 1900, Pamela McArthur Cole gave us this version, which was obtained from Miss Nichols (Salem, Mass., about 1800):

The twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Twelve ladies a dancing,
Eleven lords a leaping,
Ten cocks a crowing,
Nine bears a beating
Eight hounds a running
Seven squabs a swimming
Six geese a laying
Five gold rings,
Four Colly birds,
Three French hens
Two Turtle-doves, and
A partridge upon a pear tree.

A scrap near the top of the article seems to indicate that it was very popular in New England, but it's hard to say due to damage to the page that was scanned. Source: Pamela McArthur Cole, "Notes and Queries," in The Journal of American Folk-Lore, Vol. XIII, the issue of July-September 1900. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1900), pp. 229–230.

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 The Twelve Days of Christmas-G.L. Kittredge [this link opens in a new page at this web site]. This article is an excerpt from G. L. Kittredge, "Ballads and Songs," in The Journal of American Folk-Lore, Vol. XXX (Lancaster, PA: American Folk-Lore Society, 1917), pp. 365-367.

Another very interesting article appeared in The Journal of American Folk-lore by Philip Barry, The Twelve Days of Christmas (1905), who gives two versions of the song plus sheet music from 1790 and 1899.  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. 56–59.

In 1953, Ruth Crawford Seeger, in her American Folk Songs for Christmas, gave this version:

The twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me:
Twelve bulls a-roaring,
Eleven lords a-leaping,
Ten hounds a-hunting,
Nine hares a-running,
Eight maids a-dancing,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five gold rings,
Four colored birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
A partridge on a pear tree.

Source: Ruth Crawford Seeger, American Folk Songs for Christmas (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1953), pp. 72-73. Seeger's source was the Archive of American Folk Song (AAFS 989 A1), Forklore Section, Library of Congress (LOC), Washington, D.C. See also Folksongs of Florida, by Alton C. Morris, University of Florida Press, Gainesville, p. 416. For game directions see Folk Songs of Old New England, p. 52.

Note:

The American Folklife Center's Archive was originally founded as the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library in 1928. In 1978 it became part of the American Folklife Center and was subsequently renamed the Archive of Folk Culture. Today the Archive includes over three million photographs, manuscripts, audio recordings, and moving images. It consists of documentation of traditional culture from all around the world including the earliest field recordings made in the 1890s on wax cylinder through recordings made using digital technology. It is America's first national archive of traditional life, and one of the oldest and largest of such repositories in the world. Source: The American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

Sheet music to "The Twelve Days of Christmas" does not appear to be online at this time. Searches of three sheet music databases at the LOC all returned the result: "We were unable to find any matches for your search."

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.

In 1963, singer Andy Williams introduced a new version of this song with the title of "A Song And A Christmas Tree." Arranged by George Wyle, the first verse was:

On the first day of Christmas my good friends brought to me,
A song and a Christmas tree

Skipping forward, the song concludes with:

On the twelfth day of Christmas my good friends brought to me,
All their good wishes
Gifts for one and all
Some mistletoe
A guardian angel
Gold and silver tinsel
Candles a glowing
Little silver bells
A shining star
Four colored lights
Three boughs of holly
Two candy canes
And a song for the Christmas tree

I suspect that we could continue with variations for an uncountable number of pages, but these should suffice, I should think. The several articles on this site that discuss this carol add a number of these variants; the links are below. At the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" has Roud Index #68; 103 entries returned.

 

Counting Songs

The Twelve Days of Christmas is but one of many "number" or "counting" songs that occur throughout medieval England and Europe.  Others include

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

 

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.

There are a number of songs that have been used as catechisms. For an overview, see Eckenstein - Chants of the Creed; Lina Eckenstein, Comparative Studies in Nursery Rhymes (London: Duckworth & Co., 1906), pp. 143-151.

On this website, there are several excellent candidates:

The first verses of several of these give a flavor of the genre:

In Those Twelve Days

Chorus
In those twelve days, and in those twelve days, let us be glad,
For God of his power hath all things made.

1. What is that which is but one?
What is that which is but one?
We have but one God alone
In Heaven above sits on his throne.

One God, One Baptisme, and One Fayth

1. One God, one Baptisme, and one Fayth,
One Truth there is, the Scripture sayth.

2. Two Testaments (the Old and New)
Wee doe acknowledge to be true.

3. Three Persons are in Trinitie,
Which make One God in Unitie. etc.

One God There Is Of Wisdom

1. One God there is of wisdom, glory might,
One faith there is to guide our souls aright,
One truth there is for man to practise in,
One baptism to cleanse our souls from sin.

The Dilly Carol

1. "Come and I will sing you."
"What will you sing me?
"I will sing you ONE, O,"
"What is your ONE, O?"
One of them was all alone,
Ever will remain so.

 

On 'YouTube'

As might be expected, there is a plethora of versions of this carol at YouTube.

"Straight No Chaser," a 10-man a capella singing group, performed their very interesting version of "12 Days of Christmas" for the first time, December 7th, 1998, at Indiana University. (Thanks to my dear cousin Kate for that URL!) They also perform a number of other carols, including some very nice versions of "Silent Night" and "O Holy Night."

Note:

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

 

Versions and Articles:

Because of the huge number of variants, I quit printing versions as separate songs, and have, instead, incorporated them into these notes.

Here are several additional articles concerning Christmas Carols and The Twelve Days of Christmas, plus 14 additional versions of the carol:

Several of the sources mentioned below give additional sources, which include:

 

A Few of the Many Parodies:

As is the case with many parodies, there are versions that cannot be reproduced on a family-safe web site such as this one.

 

Sources:

Plus the other books and periodicals cited above.

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