The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Source: 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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See: Notes on the Twelve Days of Christmas


Note: "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is discussed on pp. 277-281. Five versions of the Twelve Days are given, plus a text background. Other songs include:

13-Jolly Old Hawk, p. 282 ff.

14-The Red Herring, p. 283 ff

15-The Mallard, p. 286 ff

16-A Shoulder of Mutton Jumped Over From France. p. 292 ff.

17-Sir Roger is Dead (singing game), p. 295 ff

The Twelve Days of Christmas

First Version sung by Mr. Baker (aged 85), at North Petherton, Somerset, Jan. 8, 1908.

The twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me:


Second Version sung by Mr. Alfred Emery (aged 78), at Othery, Somerset, April 4, 1908:

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me:


Third Version sung by Mr. George Wyatt at West Harptree, Somerset, April 15, 1904.

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me:


Fourth Version sung by Mrs. Chapman at West Harptree, Somerset, Aug. 29, 1906.

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me:


Fifth Version sung by Mrs. Hezeltine (aged 73) at Camborne, Cornwall, May 2, 1913.

Twelve days after Christmas my true love said to me:...


This well-known cumulative song is sung in two ways. The more usual way, in my experience, is 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 reversed, the days added one by one, until the singer reaches the verse he began with. The other method is to begin with the second day, and then add a day in each of the following repetitions, until the whole of the 12 days are included. For other versions, see Chambers' Popular Songs of Scotland, page 42; Halliwell's Nursery Rhymes, pages 73 and 63; and Northumbrian Minstrelsy, page 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, page 73, and Husk's Songs of the Nativity), the first gift is "a partridge on a pear tree." Mr. Baker, the singer of the first of the above tunes, saying "part of a juniper tree" and then volunteered the statement that he had heard some singers saying "a partridge up a pear tree," but that his version was the older one. The 12 days are, of course, those between Christmas Day and Epiphany or Twelfth Day. The words are also used as a children's game. One of Halliwell's version (page 63) is still so used in Somerset, and Lady Gomme (Dictionary of British Folk Lore, Volume 1, page 315; see Gomme – Twelve Days of Christmas), besides reprinting three of the forms given above, quotes a London variant. In a note to the game, Lady Gomme points out that the festival is of twelve days, the great mid-winter feast of Yule, was a very important one and that in this game, perhaps, may 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 for work of all kinds to be put entirely aside before Christmas and not resumed till after Twelfth Day. Cf. "Jolly Old Hawk" in this Journal. –C. J. S. [Cecil J. Sharp]

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. See: The Twelve Days of Christmas - Version 1 (Husk, Songs of the Nativity, 1868).

See Lina Eckenstein's Comparative Studies in Nursery Rhymes for other versions. She describes the song as a Twelfth Night game, each player in succession repeating the gifts of the day and raising fingers and hand according to the number. The version in Chambers Popular Rhymes with the refrain "Wha learns my carol and carries it away?" (derived from Buchan's Manuscript collection) would seem to be the oldest version extent. There is a suggestion of minstrel or trouvêre culture about this Scottish form, with its papingo (parrot) and Arabian baboon. From the constancy in English, French, and Languedoc versions of the "merry little partridge," I suspect that "pear-tree" is really perdrix (Old French pertriz) carried into England; "juniper tree" may have been "joli perdrix." "Colley-birds" are blackbirds, and it seems likely that as "goldy-rings" come amongst the birds they may be the goldspinks (gold finches) of the Scottish form – unless "goldy ring" is a corruption of "gulderer." "Gulder-cock" is a dialect name for a turkey, and as "gulder" means to "gobble," one may guess at "gulderer" as an earlier form of "gobbler." Turkeys occur in a French version. The "three French hens" may be simply "foreign" or "rare" foul, as "French" has this meaning in various dialect names, e. g. "French nuts" are walnuts, and "French fulfur" is the fieldfair. "Steerts" are probably "steers." –A. G. G. [Annie G. Gilchrist]

Note 1: Eckenstein's Comparative Studies in Nursery Rhymes is available at Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive, and Google Books.

Note 2: See Eckenstein - Chants of Numbers; Lina Eckenstein, Comparative Studies in Nursery Rhymes (London: Duckworth & Co., 1906), pp. 134-142.

Note 3: See Eckenstein - Chants of the Creed; Lina Eckenstein, Comparative Studies in Nursery Rhymes (London: Duckworth & Co., 1906), pp. 143-151.

Note 4: The "fieldfair" is "a medium-sized Eurasian thrush (Turdus pilaris) with an ash-colored head and chestnut wings and back," according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

For three Welch tunes and Welch texts, see Journal of the Welch Folk-Song Society, volume 1, part four. It is worth noting that Mr. Addy records the following, under “Magic, Charms, etc.” (Household Tales, etc.) “If a girl walked backwards to a pear-tree on Christmas Eve, and walk round it three times, she will see the spirit or image of the man who is to be her husband.” Enquiry into plant and animal-lore might throw some light upon the “partridge and pear-tree” etc., of the fore-going song. Both the partridge (in common with a good many other speckled or pied birds, an emblem of the evil one) and the pear (emblem of fertility) figure in Christian art. The partridge was supposed to be in the habit of deserting its young, and symbolized departure from the Christian faith. In some Catalan parallels to our British "The Carnal and the Crane" (or "King Herod") ballad, it is the partridge, “symbol of the devil," who reveals to King Herod that the Virgin Mary has hidden beneath a sheaf of corn. For this treachery its head was cursed for ever. In her chapter on "Cumulative Pieces" Miss Eckenstein quotes a Zürich1 chant, traced back to 1769, in which a pear-tree in a garden has fruit on in which, being bewitched, will not drop. "Joggeli" (the "Jack" of our British cumulative chants) is sent to knock the pairs off, but in vain. "The usual sequence of powers was sent to secure them." This pear-tree chant was current also in Swabia, and in Westphalia where it was taken over by the Church2 and annually recited at the religious procession on the eve of the feast of St. Lambert, September 17th. This was done so late as the year 1810. The recitation was followed or accompanied by a dance. Miss Eckenstein suggests that possibly the procession stood in relation to the garnering in of pears, and that the cumulative chant was recited to insure a good harvest. For a further note on the "knocking down of pairs," see page 293 of this Journal. –L. E. B. [Lucy E. Broadwood]


1. In many parts of Switzerland the old custom is still observed of planting an Apple-tree for a boy and a pear-tree for a girl, at their birth. – L. E. B. (Lucy E. Broadwood)

 2. Cf. the Hebrew cumulative chant of ”the Kid” which was sung in the Synagogue during the Passover. –L. E. B. (Lucy E. Broadwood)

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