It’s a classic children’s favourite song. Perfect for inducing festive cheer into singers and listeners alike. So engrained is The Twelve Days of Christmas into our Occidental psyche that pretty much everyone over the age of 4 in the western world can recite at least a couple of the verses.
If your memory starts to get a little foggy trying to remember what comes after “7 swans a swimming”, then don’t worry as you are in good company. In fact you are in good company with people throughout the songs existence.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the origins of The Twelve Days of Christmas:
The earliest reference that we have of The Twelve Days of Christmas is from a 1780 print of “Mirth Without Mischief”, with references to the song being sung at King Pepin’s Ball. King Pepin the Short was the Father of Charlemagne, and ruler of the Franks between the years AD 751 – 768. So it appears that this publication is claiming that the very song listed in the book was sung 1,000 years prior. Unlikely as this claim maybe, if this is the earliest printed version then it is likely that the song is older still. How old though is lost to time.
In this publication the lyrics are very similar to the ones that we know today, with a few minor differences:
Firstly “colly birds” is listed instead of “calling birds”. Colly is an old English term for something as black as coal (as a noun) or to make something as black as coal (as a verb). So four colly birds means four “black” birds, which could quite literally be referring to “blackbirds” or corvids, like “rooks”.
Secondly, although the first 7 verses have remained fairly consistent over the centuries the last 5 verses have changed order repeatedly over time through various publications and in the 1780 Mirth Without Mischief the last 4 verses are in a different order.
Throughout history other versions have been printed, some with a few different verses, others with completely different lyrics. Some of the more interesting verses have included; an Arabian baboon, hounds a running, bears a beating, assess racing and a very pretty peacock
It wasn’t until 1909 when a man called Frederick Austin put the words to music and the song has been the same ever since (except for satirical versions of course).
Interest in where the song The Twelve days of Christmas has come from, and what the words mean is nothing new. One suggestion is that “five gold rings” actually refers to “ring-necked pheasants”, implying that the first 7 verses where all poultry based. Cecil Sharp supposed, in the early 20th century the “French”, as in “3 French Hens”, simply meant foreign. Another theory claimed that the song originated in France and some of the terms came from corrupt French i.e. pear tree from perdrix meaning “partridge” and colly from collet meaning “ruff necked”.
In 1979 Hugh D. McKellar made a claim that the song was originally a catechism for Catholics to pass religious lore to children in safety at a time when Catholics were persecuted for their faith. Facing death they wrote this song to remind children of: God (my true love), Jesus (the partridge in a pear tree), The Old and New Testaments (2 Turtle Doves), Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues (3 French Hens), the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists (4 Calling Birds) etc.
McKellar’s theory has been largely disproved due to the fact that: 1) no evidence for this claim exists other than the claim itself, 2) there is no link between the supposed “code” and “message”, offering no “aide-memoire” and 3) all of the items listed in this theory were sacred to both protestants and Catholics so there was no need to “code” them.
Other Interesting Facts
Whilst most experts believe that there is no evidence for The Twelve Days of Christmas being anything other than a secular Christmas song, it is important to remember that for most people religion was a constant part of life affecting the way they saw the world.
In the past Christmas celebrations started on Christmas day and lasted for 12 days, concluding on the 6th January, known as Epiphany in the Christian world. In the Anglican tradition Epiphany is the day when baby Jesus is visited by the Magi (or Kings). The title of the song therefore appears to refer to the festivities surrounding this period of the Christian calendar.
Another interesting fact is that if you add all of the gifts given throughout the entire course of the song the total amount of gifts given amounts to 364 in total (the number of whole days in the year). With “12” months in the year consisting of “364” days the mathematical phenomena embedded in the song is something that some don’t know whether to read into or to just enjoy its quirky coincidence.
The enigmatic origins of this Christmas favourite have fascinated people throughout the past 240 years and will undoubtedly continue to fascinate people for many years to come.