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14# The Twelve Days of Christmas

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Here’s the surprising history behind your favorite Christmas Carols!
What if “The Red-Nosed Reindeer”, Frosty and the “One Horse Open Sleigh” had nothing to do with Christmas?
Singing Christmas songs goes hand in hand with baking Christmas treats, listening our favorite Christmas tales, watching our favorite Christmas movies, and not only.
Like everything around this period of the year, everything has a story.
From songs that have been saved from being erased forever to not really knowing for sure where a song came from, here is the history of a few Christmas Carols you know and sing still today!

Enjoy our Advent Calendar 2022!




Whether you love it or hate it, the “12 Days of Christmas” song is a holiday classic. Sure, you might prefer belting out other beloved Christmas carols like “Jingle Bells” or our modern Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” but there’s something good also about singing the “12 Days of Christmas”. Even if you don’t know all the words, you’re likely able to remember an occasional verse like “a partridge in a pear tree!”…
But do you know the song meaning and the hidden-message theory about the lyrics?
Not much of the song makes much sense in the modern age, but there is a rich history behind the elaborate song!
Of all the Christmas carols we sing today, none presents more of a challenge than our “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, with its baffling list of lyrics.
Well…and what exactly are we to make of this aviary of birds, the swans, geese, doves, hens and calling birds, and above all, what on earth is a partridge, absolutely a ground bird, doing up a pear tree?

Before speaking about our carol, what are the 12 days of Christmas?
The “12 Days of Christmas” referenced in the carol are the 12 days following Christmas, also known as Twelvetide in Christianity. The period begins with the birth of Christ on December 25th and ends with the coming of the Three Wise Men on January 6th, the Epiphany or Three Kings Day.

And now, where do the “12 Days of Christmas” lyrics come from?
Though some scholars believe that the song is French in origin, the first printed appearance of the song was in the English children’s book Mirth With-out Mischief.
If you haven’t heard of it, that’s probably because it was published in 1780, and you could ask the person who shelled out $23,750 at a Sotheby’s auction for a first edition!

Actually the origins of the carol make things a little clearer, and historians generally agree that the verse first evolved as a merry memory game, with the list of objects or animals that grows with each verse, and something for forgetting one.

These types of “memory-and-forfeit” games were played by British school children and the rules were simple: When it’s your turn, you repeat all the previously sung lyrics and add the next one. If you can’t remember a verse, you owe your opponent a “forfeit,” which was usually a kiss or a piece of candy.
There’s also a story claiming that during a time when Christians were punished for worshiping openly, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” song was used to secretly pass on the ideology of Christianity and, according this theory, each gift on the list symbolizes a different aspect of the Christian faith:

The Partridge in the Pear Tree is Jesus Christ.
The 2 Turtle Doves are The Old and New Testaments.
The 3 French hens are Faith, Hope and Charity, the theological virtues.
The 4 Calling Birds are the four gospels and/or the four evangelists.
The 5 Golden Rings are the first five books of the Old Testament.
The 6 Geese A-laying are the six days of creation.
The 7 Swans A-swimming are the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments.
The 8 Maids A-milking are the eight beatitudes.
The 9 Ladies Dancing are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit.
The 10 Lords A-leaping are the ten commandments.
The 11 Pipers Piping are the eleven faithful apostles.
The 12 Drummers Drumming are the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed.

But that still leaves us with the problem of the partridge.
If the English partridge is a creature of fields and moors, its French cousin is apparently more likely to find itself up a tree…but, if the partridge really is French then it would be called une perdrix!
Correctly pronounced ‘pere-dree’, suddenly this word sounds an awful lot like our pear tree. Could it, perhaps, just be an elaborate play on words that has left us with a partridge stuck in a pear tree?

In any case, this English Christmas carol is a classic example of a cumulative song, meaning that each verse is built on top of the previous verses, and its lyrics detail a series of increasingly numerous gifts given on each of the twelve days of Christmas.
With the carol, whose words were first published in England in the late eighteenth century, have been associated a large number of different melodies, of which the best known is derived from a 1909 arrangement of a traditional folk melody by English composer Frederic Austin.

Although there are many variations in the lyrics, the first three verses run, in full, as follows:

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.

Subsequent verses follow the same pattern, and ech verse deals with the next day of Christmastide, adding one new gift and then repeating all the earlier gifts, so that each verse is one line longer than its predecessor.

four calling birds
five gold rings
six geese a-laying
seven swans a-swimming
eight maids a-milking
nine ladies dancing
ten lords a-leaping
eleven pipers piping
twelve drummers drumming

In the early versions of the song, “my true love sent” me the gifts. However, a 20th-century variant has “my true love gave to me”, and this wording has become particularly common in North America.
Again, in one 19th-century variant, the gifts come from “my mother” rather than “my true love”, and some variants have “juniper tree” or “June apple tree” rather than “pear tree”, presumably a mishearing of “partridge in a pear tree”.

The original 1780 version has “four colly birds” (colly is a regional English expression for “coal-black”, but also an old English slang for blackbirds), while in the 19th century we have also “canary birds”, “colour’d birds”, “curley birds”, and “corley birds”.
Frederic Austin’s 1909 version, which introduced the now-standard melody, also altered the fourth day’s gift to four “calling” birds, and this variant has become the most popular, although “colly” is still found somewhere. But there’s also a Scottish version that gifts “an Arabian baboon”!






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