The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Twelve Days of Christmas

For Christmas

Version 3
Compare: The Twelve Days of Christmas - Version 1 (Mirth Without Mischief, 1780)
The Twelve Days of Christmas - Version 2 (Sabine Baring-Gould, 1889)

See: Notes on the Twelve Days of Christmas

Traditional English
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF

Source: Cecil J. Sharp, ed., One Hundred English Folksongs (Oliver Ditson Company, Boston, 1916), #96, pp, 224-225.

1. 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 turtledoves
And the part of the mistletoe bough.

12. On the first day of Christmas my true-love sent to me
One goldie ring,
And the part of a June apple tree.

Sheet Music from Sharp, ed., One Hundred English Folksongs, #96, pp, 224-225.

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Sheet Music from Cecil J. Sharp and Charles L. Marson, eds., Folk Songs from Somerset. Second Series. (London: Simpkin & Co., Ltd, et al., 1911), pp. 52-55.
The lyrics are the same as above.

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Version 1

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Version 2

Sheet music to five tunes from Cecil J. Sharp, et al., "Forfeit Songs," Journal of the Folk-Song Society, Vol. 5., No. 20 (1916), pp. 277-279.

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  See: The Twelve Days of Christmas - JFSS 5; Five versions of the carol, with 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.


Note from Sharp, One Hundred English Folksongs (1916):

This song consists of twenty-three verses, and is sung in the following way. 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.

Another way to sing the song is to being with "On the first day of Christmas," etc., and to continue to the "twelfth day," when the song concludes.

"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.

For the third gift, the singer sang "Three Britten Chains," which she said were "sea-birds with golden chains round their necks." All the other singers I have heard sang "Three French Hens," and, as this is the usual reading in printed copies, I have so given it in the text. "Britten Chains" may be a corruption of "Breton hens."

The "twelve days are, of course, those between Christmas Day and Epiphany, or Twelfth Day.

For other versions, see Mr. Baring-Gould's note to "The Jolly Goss-Hawk" (Songs of the West,  No. 71); Chambers's Popular Songs of Scotland (p. 42); Halliwell's Nursery Rhymes (pp. 63 and 73); and 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." In this last version (also given in Halliwell's Nursery Rhymes, p. 73, and Husk's Songs of the Nativity), the first gift is "A partridge on a pear tree," and this I have heard several times in country villages. One singer who gave it to me volunteered the statement that it was only another way of singing "part of a Juniper-tree," of which, of course, it may be a corruption.

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 (Dictionary of British Folk-Lore, volume i, p. 315) [sic; volume ii], besides reprinting three of the forms given above, gives a London variant. In a note to the game, Lady Gomme points out that the festival of the twelve days, the great midwinter feast of Yule, was a very important one, and that in this game may, perhaps, be discerned the relic of certain customs and ceremonies and the penalties or forfeits incurred by those who omitted religiously to carry them out; and she adds that it was a very general practice to work of all kinds to be put entirely aside before Christmas and not resumed until after Twelfth Day.

Country singers are very fond of accumulative songs of this type, regarding them as tests of endurance and memory, and sometimes of sobriety!

Editor's Note:

I don't know which edition of Halliwell that Mr. Sharp was referring to. I have only been able to see two editions. 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. The First Edition was printed in 1841. For the version in the Fifth Edition, see The Twelve Days of Christmas - Version 1 (Husk, Songs of the Nativity, 1868).

A Review of Folk-songs from Somerset (an Excerpt):

A review from "The Academy and Literature," Volume 73 (1908), pp. 801-802. In part, the reviewer wrote:

The third series of "Folk-Songs from Somerset, gathered and edited by Cecil J. Sharp and Charles L. Mason," has recently appeared. The volume contains twenty-five songs with pianoforte accompaniment, an introduction, and notes, and brings the number already published to seventy-nine. These have all been collected in a county which has not enjoyed, like Devon and Cornwall, an especial reputation for song. Moreover they form but a small portion of the accumulated treasures of these indefatigable collectors. There are more to come, for which we shall be grateful. "I love a ballad in print a-life; for then we are sure they are true."

The fact is, in the old world that has just passed away, song was everywhere. It entered into every incident of rural life to an extent quite inconceivable to the present generation of country-folk. It was in the field, at the alehouse, and by the fireside. The waggoner sang on his load, and the milkers carolled in turn to the humming of the milk against their pails. All writers of old village life, who knew what they were writing about, have given unconscious testimony to this. Thus Barnes, when he insists that Miller White, the unexpected visitor, shall stay the night:

Zo take you zeat avore the vire,
An' zip a cup o' home-brewed ale,
An' zing your zong an' tell your tale,
While I do bait the vire wi' logs.

The social enjoyment of song was an inducement only second to the comfort of the ale. It was in the most natural way in the world that Tony Lumpkin knocked himself down for a song. And Isaac Walton, most excellent but wily man, meets a milkmaid in the pasture and barters a filthy chub which he had just been abusing for a most excellent song. But this is all gone. The social life of the country has undergone a reconstruction, which indeed is not yet complete. Just as the invention of gunpowder blew an old order of things to the winds, so the introduction of machinery and rapid locomotion have brought in a new epoch. The crumbling of the old and formation of the new in social matters are as inevitable as geological change. The world advances, and we must believe that things go for the best. Yet now that the inane compositions of the music-hall are to be heard in the most remote hamlet, one may justly lament the good old song.

Strictly speaking, not all songs of great antiquity can be properly classed as folk-songs. The folk-song owns no one creator but was evolved of the people. It perhaps sprang out of a need, had its use, and grew, as in the case of a primitive rite accompanied by song and dance. It was handed down by tradition and learnt from word of mouth. In its earliest form it probably lingers only in the singing-games still to be heard in the village street, in which children unconsciously prattle something of the ritual of primitive ceremonies—of sacrifice, of marriage, of oblation to the spirit of the well or sacred tree, and of the funeral—with a reminiscence of sacred dance. The song of bringing in the May, the rhymes sung in the harvest-field when reaping was finished, and beside the waggon when bringing home the corn-maiden or queen of the harvest belonged to this class.

Such songs also as "The Twelve Days of Christmas "—

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 golden rings,
Four colley birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And the part of the mistletoe bough—

seem to carry an assurance of having been home-made, and none the less so because the meaning has to a very large extent evaporated. But when we come to the longer semi-historical ballad, one sometimes begins to suspect that it was not altogether of the folk but owed something to the professed minstrel. Yet such ballads as Lord Bateman, Lord Rendal and Little Sir Hugh are to be found in some form in every European country. They can scarcely have come from one source. Under like social conditions the same accident has befallen or the same story was invented. All ballads of this class are already familiar. They have been beloved of the peasantry in every county although there are many versions. And very quaint corruptions have sometimes crept in. When Mr. Cecil Sharp took down the tune of "Little Sir Hugh," the good old Somerset soul sang to him:

Do rain, do rain, American corn.

She said her mother always sang it so. It is, however, an amusing substitution for "In Merry Lincoln."

Note from Cecil James Sharp and Charles Latimer Marson, eds., Folk Songs from Somerset, Volume 2 (Simpkin, 1905), pp. 52-55 and pp. 74-75. The lyrics are the same as were found in One Hundred English Folk-Songs (1916).

This song consists of twenty-three verses and is sung in the following way. 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 sent 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, of course, except for the last line, is the same as the first verse.

Another way, in which the song is sometimes sung, is to begin with "On the first day of Christmas, etc." and to continue to the twelfth day when the song concludes. "Eleven bulls a-beating," refers to an ancient and cruel custom of beating bulls with sticks in the market place at Christmas time to make the beef tender. "June apple tree," means a tree whose fruit will keep sound and good till the following June; it is not, apparently, a corruption of "Juniper tree."

For the fifth gift Mrs. Hooper gave us "Five Britten Chains," which she said were "sea-birds with golden rings round their necks." All the other Somerset singers that I have heard, sing "Five French hens," and, as this is the invariable reading in printed versions, we have so altered it. "Britten chains" may be a corruption of "Breton hens."

The "twelve days of Christmas" are, of course, those between Christmas day and Epiphany, or Twelfth-day.

Country singers are very fond of songs of this type, regarding them as tests of memory and endurance. "This is the house that Jack built" is, perhaps, the best known song of this class. "The barley mow," "One man shall mow my meadow," and " The Dilly song," are other examples of the accumulative song, and these are all freely sung in Somerset. "The Christmas song" is, perhaps the most attractive of these, and as, moreover, it is very well-known all over the county, we have thought ourselves justified in including it in this collection. So far as I know, the song, with accompaniment, has not previously appeared in print.

There is an interesting version in Northumbrian Minstrelsy, p. 129, where it 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 melody in Northumbrian Minstrelsy is a little like Mr. Brister's version.

Mr. Baring Gould in his note to "The jolly Goss-hawk," in Songs of the West, No. 71, states that the song is known in Devon as "The Nawden Song."

For other versions of the words see Chambers' Popular Songs of Scotland, 1842; Husk's Songs of the Nativity ; and Halliwell's Nursery Rhymes.

Mr. Kidson tells me that he has noted down a version, with tune, in Wiltshire.

Note:

See also The Twelve Days of Christmas - JFSS 5; (1916), which contains additional notes together with five versions of the carol, plus sheet music 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.

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