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Here’s What ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ Really Means

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is one of the most popular carols sung during the holidays, but how much do you really know about it? 

When are the Twelve Days of Christmas?

They begin on December 25 and end on January 6 (the Epiphany). It’s believed that these twelve days marked the amount of time it took for the three wise men to reach Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus. 

When were the Twelve Days of Christmas First Celebrated?

The twelve days of Christmas were first proclaimed as a sacred and festive season by the Catholic Church in 567

Who specifically do the Twelve Days of Christmas Celebrate?

• 1st Day (December 25/Christmas): the birth of Christ

• 2nd Day (December 26): St. Stephen – the first Christian martyr

• 3rd Day (December 27): St. John the Apostle – one of Jesus’ disciples

• 4th Day (December 28): The Feast of the Holy Innocents – the baby boys King Herod killed when trying to find and kill baby Jesus

• 5th Day (December 29): St. Thomas Becket – Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th century murdered for challenging the King’s authority over the Church

• 6th Day (December 30): St. Egwin of Worcester – A Benedictine monk

• 7th Day (December 31/New Year’s Eve): Pope Sylvester I – one of the earliest Popes

• 8th Day (January 1/New Year’s Day): Mary, the Mother of Jesus

• 9th Day (January 2): St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen – two 4th century Christians

• 10th Day (January 3): Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus – celebrates the naming of Jesus in the Jewish Temple

• 11th Day (January 4): St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American saint

• 12th Day (January 5/Twelfth Night): St. John Neumann who was the first Bishop in America

Traditionally, celebrations took place each day. However, the biggest celebration was held on Twelfth night, also known as Epiphany Eve. This is also when most people take down their Christmas decorations.

What are the origins of the song?

Actually, the song was originally a poem or chant. It’s unknown who wrote it or where it even originated, although some think it was France. It was written in a poetic form called “cumulative verse,” where each verse contributes to a longer narrative. Over the centuries the lyrics would change and it would eventually be set to music in the 20th century. 

Why was it created? 

It’s highly probable that it began as a memory and forfeit game for Twelfth night celebrations and would been said and not sung. Players would gather in a circle and the leader would recite a verse and each player would repeat it. The leader would keep adding verses until a mistake was made by one of the players, who would then drop out of the game. The last player standing was the winner. 

When did it first appear in print?

The first known written version of it was in the 1780 children’s book Mirth Without Mischief.

What are the lyrics?

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

The song then adds a gift for each day, building on the verse before it, until you’re reciting all 12 gifts together:

second day: 2 turtle doves

third day: 3 French hens

fourth day: 4 calling birds 

fifth day: 5 golden rings

sixth day: 6 geese a-laying

seventh day: 7 swans a-swimming

eighth day: 8 maids a-milking

ninth day: 9 ladies dancing

tenth day: 10 lords a-leaping

eleventh day: 11 pipers piping

twelfth day: 12 drummers drumming

Is the song a secret coded song that persecuted Catholics?

There’s a theory that this song is really a secret-coded song to help Christians learn and pass on the tenets of their faith while avoiding persecution. Under that theory, the various gifts were broken down as such:

a partridge in the pear tree (represents Jesus Christ)

• 2 turtle doves (the Old and New Testaments)

• 3 French hens (faith, hope and charity, the theological virtues)

• 4 calling birds (the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists)

• 5 golden rings (the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the “Pentateuch,” which gives the history of man’s fall from grace

• 6 geese a-laying (the six days of creation)

• 7 swans a-swimming (the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments)

• 8 maids a-milking (the eight beatitudes)

• 9 ladies dancing (the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit)

• 10 lords a-leaping (the ten commandments)

• 11 pipers piping (the eleven faithful apostles)

• 12 drummers drumming (the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed)

At first glance this all makes sense. But, according to Snopes.com, this is not true. There are many holes in this logic. First, the song’s gifts have nothing to do with their Christian “equivalents.” Second, and most importantly, if Christians were so restricted from practicing their faith that they had to conceal messages in song, they wouldn’t have even been able to celebrate Christmas in the first place, much less sing about it. So, no, the song is not a secret-coded song. But that doesn’t mean that Christians can’t think of it as such. 

How many different variations of the song are there?

Over the years there have been many variations of the song. Some had different lyrics which mentioned “bears a -baiting” or “ships a-sailing.” In some, the singer’s mother is the gift giver instead of their true love. Early versions list four “colly” birds, instead of “calling” birds. The word “colly” is an archaic term meaning black as coal (so, blackbirds). 

The version we’re most familiar with today is over a century old. It was written by Frederic Austin in 1909. He set the melody and changed the “colly” birds to “calling” birds. He probably also added the drawn-out flourish of the “five go-olden rings.”  

Artists who have recorded this song

Numerous artists such as Bing Crosby & the Andrew Sisters, Perry Como, Mitch Miller, and Pentatonix have recorded the song giving it their own personal touch. Even Alvin & the Chipmunks and the Muppets (featuring John Denver) gave it their own spin. 

Are there any non-traditional versions of the song?

Of course there are. The structure of the song lends itself easily to parody, so many artists have done just that: Bob and Doug McKenzie’s “12 Days of Christmas”, Jeff Foxworthy’s “Redneck 12 Days of Christmas”, Bob Rivers “12 Pains of Christmas,” just to name a few. There are so many parodies out there. There’s even a COVID-19 version – “12 Days of Quarantine” by Chris Mann. 

What’s with the obsession with birds?

The first seven days of gifts involve birds, and there’s even speculation that the “five golden rings” refer not to jewelry, but to the markings on a ring-necked pheasant. That’s a lot of birds!

But there is no definitive explanation as to why the gift-giver in the song was so obsessed with birds and felt they were suitable gifts to bestow upon their true love. Birds, however, are known to be symbolic of so many things, so maybe that’s why.

Bonus Fun Facts 

A first edition of the book, Mirth Without Mischief, sold for $23,750 at a Sotheby’s auction in 2014. You can find a much more affordable digital copy on Amazon.

If you were to add up the number of gifts for just each day without repeating them, it would total 78. If you add up the total number of gifts per day, including those in each repetitive verse, the total number of gifts would add up to 364. That’s almost one gift for every day of the year! 

According to the PNC Christmas Price Index, which accounts for the cost of every single item and service sung about in the song, the cost for these gifts would be $41,205 for 78 individual gifts. The cost for the 364 gifts would be a whopping $179,454.19. 

Some versions have even been incorporated into book format. These are multi-cultural and span the globe. There are numerous versions, but here are a few: 

A Porcupine in a Pine Tree (Canadian 12 days of Christmas)

A Stork in a Baobab Tree (African 12 days of Christmas)

A Pukedo in a Ponga Tree (New Zealand 12 days of Christmas)

Now that you know what “The Twelve Days of Christmas” really is about, you can go on with having a Merry Christmas!

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Written by Mimi Bosarge

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