Christmas Lyn

The 12 Days of Christmas

Updated May 21, 2024
Source: Pexels

The 12 Days of Christmas is among the earliest and best-known Christmas songs. Today, it’s known as a cumulative children’s carol with a cheerful tone.

However, scholars believe the 12 Days of Christmas carries a much deeper significance than memory training.

The carol consists of 12 verses, with each subsequent verse repeating the previous verses and adding one new Christmas gift. As a result, each next verse is one line longer than the preceding one.

The history of the 12 Days of Christmas isn’t definite, but some historians suggest it could have been used to teach kids catechism when Catholicism was banned in England. For this reason, each gift in the carol is symbolic.

Regardless of the real 12 Days of Christmas origin, the carol is a fun way to test your brain and share the Christmas spirit with others.

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

What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?

The 12 Days of Christmas isn’t just a name of a Christmas carol, but an actual period also known as Twelvetide.

Despite a common misconception, Christmas celebrations don’t end on December 25. They start on Christmas Day and continue until Epiphany, sometimes called the Twelfth Night or the 13th day of Christmas.

The 12 Days of Christmas were proclaimed as a sacred, festive season in 567 by the Council of Tours.

In preparation for the long feast, Christians had to observe the Advent fast. Each of the 12 days commemorates a saint or an event:

  • December 25: celebrating Christ’s birth,
  • December 26: Saint Stephen’s Day,
  • December 27: commemorating Saint John the Apostle,
  • December 28: The Feast of the Holy Innocents commemorating boys killed by King Herod in Bethlehem,
  • December 29: commemorating Saint Thomas Becket,
  • December 30: commemorating Saint Egwin of Worcester,
  • December 31: commemorates Pope Sylvester I,
  • January 1: commemorates Mary, the mother of Jesus,
  • January 2: commemorates Saint Basil the Great and Saint Gregory Nazianzen,
  • January 3: The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus commemorating the day Jesus was named in the Jewish Temple,
  • January 4: commemorates Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton,
  • January 5: commemorates Saint John Neumann and is known as Epiphany Eve.

The 12 Days of Christmas carol bears its name and structure from this festive season. However, the meanings of each verse different from the meanings of the actual days of Twelvetide.

Carol Origins

If you consider the carol’s lyrics to sound a bit dated, you’re right. The earliest version of the 12 Days of Christmas carol known to historians dates 1780.

It was published in a children’s book, Mirth Without Mischief, as a cumulative poem.

However, many scholars believe that the poem originated much earlier than that in France rather than in Britain.

Revelers could have used it for a memory game at Twelfth Night celebrations. Those who didn’t remember the words had to grant the opponent a favor.

It wasn’t until over a century later, in 1909, that the poem’s words became a carol. The music was created by British composer Frederic Austin, who also added the famous line “five golden rings.”

Does the Carol Have Folk Origins?

While some historians consider the 12 Days of Christmas to be of French origin, others argue it has folk British roots.

Numerous records of the poem in different variations were found in Dorset, Somerset, and the North of England. Especially often, the carol was mentioned in the Newcastle region from approximately 1714.

In Song of the Nativity, published in 1864, William Henry Husk writes: “This piece is found on broadsides printed at Newcastle at various periods during the last hundred and fifty years. On one of these sheets, nearly a century old, it is entitled “An Old English Carol.”

Husk states that the carol was most likely used in the forfeit game, where the first person had to recite the first verse, the second person the following verse, and so on.

The person who failed to recite a verse was subjected to some sort of forfeit.

In other words, regardless of its real country of origin, the poem was initially used as sort of a game and evolved into a children’s Christmas carol only centuries later.

Christmas Ban Theory

Today, the 12 Days of Christmas is widely considered no more than a cheerful children’s cumulative song. But scholars argue that this carol is a highly interesting example of faith survival in times when it was prohibited.

At the times of the Protestant Reformation in England, when practicing Catholicism was forbidden. Some believe that the carol contains a secret code hidden to help Christians practice their religion without getting prosecuted.

Catholic priests were meant to teach children catechism through the images and symbols relevant to the Catholic faith. This theory has spread in the early 20th century and indeed has some decent assertions in its support.

Each of the presents mentioned in the carol carries a special symbolism.

For instance, partridge is meant to represent Jesus, and two doves stand for Old and New Testaments. However, the birds could also be mentioned simply because they were commonly served for dinner at that time.

Twelve Days of Christmas Symbolism

The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes states that the gifts from the 12 Days of Christmas carry a special symbolism, though scholars couldn’t agree on the specific meanings of each gift.

Some believe the gifts refer to Biblical figures and events, others – that they represent foods or sports and have nothing to do with religion.

Indeed, the 12 Days of Christmas always had a deep significance. Since the early times, people used to observe weather during the 12 Days of Christmas to determine the weather for the next 12 months, following a common superstition.

It seems logical that the carol would also broadcast some message. So, a widely accepted theory is that the partridge on a pear tree mentioned in the first verse refers to Jesus, whose birthday is celebrated on Christmas Day.

Why would a partridge represent Christ, you may wonder? Scholars suggest that mother partridge is the only bird that is ready to die protecting its children, just like Christ died for our sins.

The second verse mentions two doves that are considered to refer to the Old and New Testaments. In Christian iconography, the dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit and peace. So, in this gift, the carol’s listeners are meant to find Christian faith.

The next gift is three French hens that allegedly symbolize faith, hope, and love. The fourth gift is four calling birds that may represent the four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

The fifth verse about five gold rings was added by the carol’s composer Frederic Austin and may refer to the first five books of the Old Testament. The sixth verse mentions six geese a-laying, representing the six days of creation.

The hatched eggs allegorically represent the formation of the world by God. It’s the very first story found in the Bible.

While the meanings of the first six gifts are likely familiar to nearly any Christian, the seventh verse requires a bit more extensive knowledge of the Bible.

Mentioning seven swans, the verse likely refers to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion. Swans are gracious, beautiful creatures that perfectly represent spiritual gifts.

The eighth gift is “eight maids-a-milking.” In medieval England, milkmaid was one of the worst jobs imaginable. This verse means that Jesus cared about everyone equally, be it a milkmaid or a noble.

In the Bible, Christ blessed eight groups of people who were ready to accept his teaching: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those seeking righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

The ninth gift, the nine fruits, likely symbolizes the fruits of the Spirit mentioned in Galatians 5:22-23. These fruits are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

The tenth gift’s symbolism is, perhaps, the easiest to guess. It represents the Ten Commandments familiar to any Catholic.

The next gift, eleven pipers, refers to Christ’s disciples. Although he had 12 disciples at first, one betrayed him. The last gift is believed to refer to the 12 points of doctrine in the Apostles’ Creed.

How Many Gifts in the Carol?

Since the carol is cumulative, you may wonder – how many gifts are there in the 12 Days of Christmas? Counting the gifts in the carol is simple when you understand its structure.

There are 12 verses, and the number of gifts in each verse corresponds with the number of the verse itself. The carol mentions the following gifts:

  • 1st verse: one partridge,
  • 2nd verse: two turtledoves,
  • 3rd verse: three French hens,
  • 4th verse: four calling birds,
  • 5th verse: five gold rings,
  • 6th verse: six geese a-laying,
  • 7th verse: seven swans a-swimming,
  • 8th verse: eight maids a-milking,
  • 9th verse: nine ladies dancing,
  • 10th verse: ten lords a-leaping,
  • 11th verse: eleven pipers piping,
  • 12th verse: twelve drummers drumming.

If every gift was only mentioned once, we would get 78 gifts. However, the carol has a cumulative structure, where each subsequent verse repeats the previous verse before adding in a new line. Thus, the correct calculations are as follows:

  • Partridges: 1 x 12 = 12,
  • Doves: 2 x 11 = 22,
  • Hens: 3 x 10 = 30,
  • Calling birds: 4 x 9 = 36,
  • Golden rings: 5 x 8 = 40,
  • Geese: 6 x 7 = 42,
  • Swans: 7 x 6 = 42,
  • Maids: 8 x 5 = 40,
  • Ladies: 9 x 4 = 36,
  • Lords: 10 x 3 = 30,
  • Pipers: 11 x 2 = 22,
  • Drummers: 12 x 1 = 12,
  • Total: 364 gifts.

Carol Covers

Being one of the most popular Christmas carols, the 12 Days of Christmas was covered by numerous famous 20th and 21st centuries artists. The best-known version of this song was recorded by Bing Crosby, who also sang Silent Night and White Christmas in 1949.

American singer Frank Sinatra recorded the carol with his children on his 1968 album. John Denver, the songwriter for The Muppets, performed the song on television special John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together in the 1970s.

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