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Lyrics for the song are at the bottom of the page.


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The "Twelve Days of Christmas" first appeared in a children's book titled, Mirth Without Mischief in England way back in 1780. In this book, it appears to be a memory game, rather than a  Christmas song. (But, then some could say that the song itself is like a memory game.) The object of the game is to have the first player start out reciting the first verse, with each of the following players repeating previous versed and then adding one. If a player missed a verse or made some kind of error, then he/she would have to give a kiss or some kind of food to someone else. This game soon grew to be very popular at Twelfth Night parties. 

Although the first published version of this song was in England, there are three older versions of the song in French, and one other version from Scotland. Therefore, with some people, there remains debate on the origin of the song not necessarily being English, but French.  

In 1842, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" song was first recorded by James O. Halliwell.  Boys with blackened faces wearing animal skins accompanied him. (See Twelve Lords A-leaping to explain this dance.)

So, how did the idea of 12 days begin?   Why not the Ten Days of Christmas or the Fourteen Days of Christmas?  It all goes back to the early 4th century Christian church, which believed that January 6 (Epiphany) is the date that Christ was baptized, representing the birth of Jesus' soul.  This was more important than December 25th to them, regardless of the Winter Solstice at the time.  It took a few hundred years; but, by the 6th century, the Christian emperor, Justinian, proclaimed Christmas as a public holiday, with 8 days of feasting.  Then, by the 9th century, King Alfred of England increased the celebration from 8 days to 12 days. He declared December 25th - January 6th, with the twelfth day falling on January 6. Note: This means the actual night would be the day before on January 5. Confusing, I know.

As with all cultures, as the king or society prospers, so do the celebrations. This held true for Christmas also.  The Middles Ages was the peak era for celebrating Christmas.  Then in 17th century England, Oliver Cromwell, under the Puritan Commonwealth, overthrew the king and totally abolished Christmas!

Slowly, Christmas returned to society during the Restoration period, but not in such a gala manner as during the Middle Ages.  It wasn't until the end of the 18th century in England that a growing interest developed for the past, one of them being the Twelve Days (of Christmas celebrations).  By the time the Industrial Revolution hit England, the Twelve Days came to a decline due to the increase in work days. No one had time for 12 days of celebration any more. Does anyone today for that matter?

 

There are differing viewpoints on what The Twelve Days of Christmas represent. They vary from cultural, social, political to religious.   I'll go through them as the song gives them, starting with the pear tree.  The religious meanings are at the end of the page in a table.  As I was going through each item, I felt there was a common theme of "fertility" in most of these items.  This really surprised me!

 

One tradition for some on Twelfth Night is to go around wassailing fruit trees as a kind of fertility rite.  Exactly how this is done had varied from century to century. But, in the 18th century (when the song was created) wassailing was done by pouring cider, honey, spices and pulp from a burst baked apple (all mixed in a bowl) around the trees.  The term "Wassail" is taken from the waes hael meaning "be whole" (aka be in good health).  

Another folklore claims that a young maiden was suppose to walk backwards around a pear tree three times on Christmas morning.  Then she gazes into the branches. She should see the image of her future husband.

Fertility and sexuality have often been represented by fruits for centuries. The apple, represents the female (perhaps going all the way back to the Garden of Eden?).  The pear is suppose to represent the male.  The male partridge is also well-known for being  a lusty suitor, very fertile, and producing a lot of off-spring. (Along the same lines as the rabbit does today.) Therefore, the "partridge in a pear tree" symbolizes to some a very suggestive sexual symbolism!

In England, the red-legged partridge was commonly known to sit in pear trees. This bird was not introduced to England from France until the late 1770's. Since the verse is earlier than that time, this is why many believe the song originates from France.

Doves for centuries have symbolized both love and fertility.  Astarte, the Phoenician goddess of love, is said to have been hatched on the banks of the Euphrates River from an egg that was warmed by two doves.  Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty, was born of water, where doves are often depicted drinking. Hence, this is why they are often seen as fountain art.  Christianity then associated doves as a symbol of the Holy Spirit.

Doves are believed to mate for life.  Today, they symbolize marital devotion, faithfulness and love forever.

Some believe that the French hens prove that this song originated in France. How? The Latin name for France was Gaul, which comes from the Latin word Gallia.  This is close to the Roman word for rooster.

In the Christian religion, it is believed that a cock crowed when Christ was born as a sign that "the light of the world" has arrived.  This is why, a rooster on a Christian tomb symbolizes the resurrection.

During the 18th century, large, exotic fowl from the Orient were brought back to England. These birds mated with the descendants of the Roman-breed chickens.  It is believed that the "three French hens" in the song represent a new breed. White chickens are believed to bring good luck.  And, hens are believed to symbolize motherly devotion.

 

Yes, that's right!  All these years you've been singing "calling birds" when the reality is, it's colly birds.  So what are these birds?  A colly bird is a European black bird.  Colly means black.  It's my view that it's the word "coal + ie" said with an little accent?  Therefore, a dark, black bird looked like black coal and was called a "coalie" or "Colly Bird."  

So, the song is really saying... four crows.  But, who wants a crow for Christmas?  They did! You see...back in the Medieval days, blackbird was considered a delicacy. In the children's song "Sing a Song of Sixpence" there are 24 blackbirds backed in a pie.  Pies seem to be a real gourmet food in the peak of The Twelfth Night days and were often a sign of status and competition among the wealthy.  Dining during this time was a form of entertainment, with food presentations having fireworks, and surprises coming out of them.  But, the grandest pie of all was said to be  in the year 1770 for Sir Henry Grey at a Twelfth Night celebration in London.  This pie is said to be 9 feet in circumference.  The filling was composed of two bushels of flour, two woodcocks, two turkeys, two rabbits, two ox tongues, four geese, four ducks, four partridges, six pigeons, seven blackbirds and twenty lbs. of butter!  The pie weighed 168 lbs. and was wheeled into the dining room.  Imagine the cholesterol?!

If you're a jewelry fan, you're going to be disappointed to learn that it's not actually gold rings that are given on day 5.   Once again, this is reference to birds (do you see a pattern here?) and the 5 golden rings are said to represent the gold rings on a pheasant's neck.  Why the pheasant?

It all begins with the legend of Jason and the Argonauts back in 750 B.C. when they sailed from Thessaly, Greece in search of the "Golden Fleece".  During this epic journey, they landed in Phalis, acquiring not only the sorceress, Medea, but also a lot of golden birds.  The Greek word phasianornis means "bird of Phasis."  It is believed that this species of ring-necked pheasant are from the  sub-species of the  infamous "Golden Fleece."  Soon, eating pheasant was only for the very rich and royal, often becoming the high-point of the feast.  Many times, it was customary to swear an oath upon it before eating.

Going back to Neolithic times, the goose is one of the oldest domesticated birds.  It's also been the topic of a lot of folklore.  This is probably the reason it's part of the song.

Because of their migration habits, they were often considered to be a symbol of the solar year and also fertility. Ancient Egyptians believed that a mummy's soul rose up in the form of a goose with a human head.  The Roman goddess, Juno (rules heaven and marriages), considered the goose sacred. Why? In 387 B.C. the geese in her temple cackled and honked, warning the Romans that barbarians were close.  Ever since then, the geese were honored for their protective services.   Medieval seafarers had a strange tale on the origin of the goose.  It seems that on the hull of their ships grew this long, goose-shaped barnacle.  Coincidentally, there was also an Artic goose that migrated around England. Since this goose and the barnacle looked a lot alike, the sailors said that the goose originated from the barnacle, and in some tales a seaside tree.

Why was this so important? Well,  because the goose came from a tree it was suddenly all right to eat because it was then considered a 'fruit' and not the 'flesh of animals.'  By the 18th century, the goose was the customary Christmas dinner.  The boar had been hunted to extinction, so it was no longer served. But, many homes served a string of sausages around the goose as a reminder of the boar in days past.

Because many water-fowl could both fly and swim, the ancients had a real fascination with them.  Many believed that these animals had a connection between natural and supernatural worlds.   The migrations of some birds (disappearing when days grew short and coming when they grew longer) also added to their beliefs.   Egypt linked swans with immortality, just like they did the geese.   The Greek priests, who worship Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, are believed to be descended from swans.  Old Celtic and British myths believe that lost loved ones turn into swans, with gold or silver chains on their necks to symbolize their enchantment.  The transformation is believed to take place during their Samhain festival, where the gates of the other worlds open up and souls are free to pass.

King Edward of England, in 1304 took his vows of knighthood over two white swans decorated with gold nets and crowns.  Since then, the swans became associated with royalty; and, having swans was strictly exclusive to the monarchy.  In Britain today, the swan is still considered a symbol of royalty.

In 1697 black swans were discovered in Australia.  This caused a great stir in Europe, because  up until then, it was believed that swans were suppose to be white. At least, they were all white in Europe!

This refers to the many food products that are made of milk.  In the old days, due to poor refrigeration, a person didn't really drink fresh milk.  Milk quickly would sour and/or separate.  But, when it was in the form of sweet milk, sour cream, butter and/or cheese, then milk became very important!

Custard was one of the favorite foods of the Middle Ages. Another was boiling (hulled) wheat in milk, with egg yolks and some saffron.  It's closest resemblance today would be like oatmeal?  Cottage cheese was another popular food. But, actual cheese was the prize!  Both in England and France, cheese provided food during the long winters.  

In 18th century England, they played a game on Christmas night called "Yawning for the Chesire Cheese."  OK, now we all know that yawning is addictive.  It's really hard to not yawn when you see someone yawn. Well, back in the those days they had yawning contests.  And, the person who made the widest and longest yawn --- and who produced the greatest yawns in return --- won the cheese!

Now we get to the term "come a-milking."  In the 18th century, when a maiden was asked to "go a-milking" it had one of two meanings.  Either it was a proposal of marriage; or, it was a rather risqué invitation for intimacy.  I'm not sure how a girl knew which intention the man meant.

In the early days of England, they had town watchmen, known as waits, that went around patrolling the streets and calling out the hours of the night. By the 18th century, the got a little more skilled and turned into town musicians. During Christmastime, these town musicians were nicely rewarded.  They sang day and night, often serenading sleepers from midnight to dawn.

But, odd as this seems, Europe wasn't really into drums.  They actually first got introduced to them during the Crusades when they brought them back to Europe as their spoils from the Holy Land.  These drums were basically Egyptian and Sumerian.  Soon, the beat of a drum became associated with warfare.  And, a symbol of marching into battle.

The drum also became associated with the trumpet, to announce the arrival of each course during banquets.  A skilled musician could not only play the pipes, but also the tabor (a small drum).  This was known as the whittle and dub.

Sitting around, watching your sheep was a pretty boring job. So, shepherds often would play their pipes.  It is believed that on the night Jesus was born, shepherds were playing.  It's also rumored that while Rome burned, Nero wasn't fiddling. Instead, he was playing bagpipes!  

By the 9th century, the bagpipe was the instrument for all medieval celebrations.  This music had only one single line of melody, which suited the bagpipe quite nicely, especially for dances called caroles.

Drones, which could produce only a single tone were added to the bagpipes in the 13th century.  The drone is what creates that background hum that you hear.  As the demand for more harmony, multi-notes, and melodies grew, the bagpipes were losing their popularity and being replaced by other musical instruments.  But, in never died out in Scotland!  In the 16th century, the bagpipe became an instrument associated with soldiers and fighting.  It had a real stirring effect on the men!  Because of this, the English banned the bagpipe in Ireland.

In France, the bagpipe was popular as an accompaniment for dance.  In the 17th century, a new kind of bagpipe was created called the musette.  These were driven by bellows (rather than mouthblown), and the sound was less shrill. The French nobility also had their musettes crafted not just as musical instruments, but as works of art, with ivory chanter and bag covers made of embroidered silk, with tassels and fringes.  Many French musicians often played the musette as entertainment for Twelfth Night celebrations.

 

Along the same lines as the bagpipes previously, dancing was also connected to the music.  As I said above, the dances were known as caroles.  During the Middle Ages, the carole was very popular court entertainment.   But, prior to this time, dancing was considered a sin of the flesh and was connected with the devil.  Since most dances were done in circles, the direction in which one danced also mattered.   Slowly, dancing got accepted ---  but only if done in the correct direction! The Christian church considered  dancing to the left = bad, but dancing to the right = good. However, many non-Christian people danced from left to right because they were worshipping the sun (round) as a way of representing the sun's movement from east to west. The sun was a priority in many dances. They didn't do it as a form of evil.   In some cases, the dances were done in a circle around a fire. The fire represented the sun's light, warmth and purifying qualities.  Eventually, the Christian church failed in banning dancing, especially in circles going left. And, by the 15th century the word for carole was replaced with the word branle, because dancing was then associated with songs.  Eventually, the songs turned into stories, like those about Christmas.  This is how the term Christmas Carols came about. As the years went on, the round dance, grew into many different types of dances.

Leaping dances were strictly for the men.  These dances were for the purpose of fertility as well as for war.  These physically exerting dances were meant to rile up the men for battle to create some kind of mental exhilaration. 

The Roman god of vegetation and war was Mars.  The Roman priests of their Salii ritual would leap as high as they could in the air in hopes of inducing the corn to grow. It was believed that the height of their leap would be the height of the corn. Swords were a part of their costume.  

In Britain, the lords a-leaping are assumed to be morris dancers, highly costumed ceremonial folk, who performed between the courses of a Christmas feast.  One form of morris dancing included swords (just like the the Salii ritual mentioned above) also.  In this dance, twelve men in two teams performed intricate patterns, ending with the swords being braided together to form a Lock or Nut above the Lord of Misrule (during the Twelfth Night Celebration).  In other morris dancing, instead of swords, antlers were worn.

By the end of the 18th century, this style of dance was no longer of interest to the upper classes for entertainment.  It was being performed at festivals or fairs only.

Some believe that the lords a-leaping did a dance called the gavotte for the Twelfth Night celebrations because it was accompanied by a drum and bagpipe.  The gavotte lasted until the end of the 18th century and then faded away in popularity.

Note: According to CNN, if you were to buy all the items in the Twelve Days of Christmas this year (2009) it would total $87,000.   (Not sure if this includes any sales tax).  In 2008 it was $86,609.  The cost went up due to  those 5 golden rings costing more because the price of gold increased.

Source: "Twelve Days of Christmas. A Celebration and History"
by Leigh Grant © 1995
Note: The illustrations in this book are awesome! Check it out!

The Religious Symbolism  of the lyrics are as follows. 
To me they appear to be based primarily on the Catholic religion.
Source

1

True Love = God and  Partridge = Christ.

2

Turtle Doves =  Old and New Testaments.

3

French Hens = Faith, Hope & Charity (The theological virtues) or The Gifts of the Magi (Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.)

4

Calling Birds =  Either the Four Gospels or the Four Evangelists.

5

Golden Rings =  The Pentateuch or The first 5 books of the Old Testament. Ring also symbolizes eternity.
(Tells the history of man's fall from grace.)

6

Geese A-laying = Six days in which God created the world.

7

Swans A-Swimming = The 7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit or the 7 Sacraments. Some also say it represents the 7th day is rest (to enjoy with family.)  Or it also represents the 7 deadly sins or the 7 spiritual works of mercy.

8

Eight Maids A-Milking = The 8 Beatitudes.

9

Ladies Dancing = The 9 Fruits of the Holy Spirit or the 9 choir of angels.

10

Lords A-Leaping = The 10 Commandments.

11

Pipers Piping = The 11 Faithful Apostles.

12

Drummers Drumming = The 12 Points of Doctrine in the Apostle's Creed or the 12 Tribes of Israel or the 12 Prophets.

 

Our Midi is "The 12 Days of Christmas"
Here are the lyrics:

On the first day of Christmas, 
my
true love sent to me 
A partridge in a pear tree. 

On the second day of Christmas, 
my true love sent to me 
Two turtle doves, 
And a partridge in a pear tree. 

On the third day of Christmas, 
my true love sent to me 
Three French hens
Two turtle doves, 
And a partridge in a pear tree. 

On the fourth day of Christmas, 
my true love sent to me 
Four calling birds, 
Three French hens, 
Two turtle doves, 
And a partridge in a pear tree. 

On the fifth day of Christmas, 
my true love sent to me 
Five golden rings
Four calling birds, 
Three French hens, 
Two turtle doves, 
And a partridge in a pear tree. 

On the sixth day of Christmas, 
my true love sent to me 
Six geese a-laying
Five golden rings, 
Four calling birds, 
Three French hens, 
Two turtle doves, 
And a partridge in a pear tree. 

On the seventh day of Christmas, 
my true love sent to me 
Seven swans a-swimming
Six geese a-laying, 
Five golden rings, 
Four calling birds, 
Three French hens, 
Two turtle doves, 
And a partridge in a pear tree. 

On the eighth day of Christmas, 
my true love sent to me 
Eight maids a-milking
Seven swans a-swimming, 
Six geese a-laying, 
Five golden rings, 
Four calling birds, 
Three French hens, 
Two turtle doves, 
And a partridge in a pear tree. 

On the ninth day of Christmas, 
my true love sent to me 
Nine ladies dancing
Eight maids a-milking, 
Seven swans a-swimming, 
Six geese a-laying, 
Five golden rings, 
Four calling birds, 
Three French hens, 
Two turtle doves, 
And a partridge in a pear tree. 

On the tenth day of Christmas, 
my true love sent to me 
Ten lords a-leaping
Nine ladies dancing, 
Eight maids a-milking, 
Seven swans a-swimming, 
Six geese a-laying, 
Five golden rings, 
Four calling birds, 
Three French hens, 
Two turtle doves, 
And a partridge in a pear tree. 

On the eleventh day of Christmas, 
my true love sent to me 
Eleven pipers piping
Ten lords a-leaping, 
Nine ladies dancing, 
Eight maids a-milking, 
Seven swans a-swimming, 
Six geese a-laying, 
Five golden rings, 
Four calling birds, 
Three French hens, 
Two turtle doves, 
And a partridge in a pear tree. 

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

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