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What Are The 12 Days of Christmas? And Where Does That Tradition Come From?

Ancient History | December 8, 2020

The Adoration of the Magi. Fresco in the Lower Church of the Basillica of San Francesco d'Assisi in Assisi, Italy.

You've likely heard the popular Christmas song, with music penned by Frederic Austin, and the lyrics dating back to 1780, "The 12 Days of Christmas," and the lovely, yet mildly-irritating nature of the jaunty holiday tune. Its Christian roots are its namesake because it's a Christmas song, but most people don't know the exact tradition of the 12 days of Christmas these days, so we're going to clear that right up, so you can bring this up at Christmas dinner instead of making small talk with the wrong aunt.

The Christian Origins

The Adoration of the Magi. Fresco in the Lower Church of the Basillica of San Francesco d'Assisi in Assisi, Italy. Wikimedia Commons

The song uses an older Christian tradition as its base, but not as its subject matter. The Christian lore behind the twelve days of Christmas really varies by region, and even the days differ depending on where it's being celebrated. "Technically," the 12 Days of Christmas start on Christmas Day itself (but in some places, the day after Christmas), and end on January 6th, when the feast of epiphany happens (the twelfth night). According to Christian theology, the 12 days of Christmas are the days that mark the birth of Christ up to the point where the three wise men show up. So, technically, Christmas lasts all the way up until January 6th, meaning that you have more time to leave your decorations up and not worry about taking them down while living in a off-putting half-holiday limbo for an additional sweet, sweet week. 

The four weeks before Christmas are called "Advent," (see: Advent Calendars) which starts four Sundays before Christmas.

Some people celebrate the 12 days of Christmas by observing Saints' feast days and doing something Christmas-related every single day, but increasingly around the world, the festivities end the day after Christmas. 

"The 12 Days of Christmas" (The Song)And then, of course, there's the classic Christmas song "The Twelve Days of Christmas," which is a "cumulative song," where the verses build on top of each other, kind of like "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall," but family-friendly. You've undoubtedly heard it ad nauseam throughout your life, but the melody isn't as "age-old" as you'd think. The tune that we currently attribute to "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is actually from a 1909 arrangement by English composer Frederic Austin. The original version of the lyrics was part of a children's book from 1780 called "Mirth With-out Mischief." The book contained a memorization game meant to be played on the twelfth night. In northern England, the song was called the "Ten Days of Christmas," where the lyrics get more and more complicated and alliterative as it goes on, making the game harder than usual, and ostensibly, more fun. Like many traditions, it changes almost completely sometimes with geography. The French sing completely different lyrics, Scotland has their own version, and the Faroe Islands have a similar Christmas memory game as well. That version, interestingly, hadn't yet evolved to have every phrase start with the word "on." The 1909 version is actually the one that introduced the "on," bringing the world the rhyme in its currently popular form. 

Contrary to popular belief, the song itself doesn't have any Christian symbolism in it, which was proved by Snopes, which is pretty much as thorough as the internet gets. This is a common misnomer likely because "Ring Around The Rosie" has dark origins, which is a fun fact that makes the rounds socially, and people tend to attribute meaning to where there is none quite easily when they feel like they have insight on how "things work." This is how we get so many variations of such old traditions.  

Lyrics to the song may vary, depending on who you ask

The "five gold rings" illustration found in the very first known publication of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (1780)

Versions of the song vary throughout its history, with some pretty different changes to the song.

Here are a few:

- The 1909 version begins with "The first day of Christmas" without the word "on."

- "My true love sent" was changed in the 20th century to "my true love gave."

- Some early versions had "my mother" instead of "my true love."

- Some had "juniper tree" instead of "pear tree," which is a super early version of a misheard lyric.

- "Five golden rings" used to be "five gold rings," which people liked because every syllable got the same emphasis, but later evolved, likely because the melody goes down in pitch during the word "gold," making it more natural and organic to add the "en" at the end to say "five golden rings."

People sing the song in a ton of different ways, but it all started with a children's memory game. 

The Christmas Price Index

A Faroe stamp of the "Twelve Days of Christmas"

In 1984, PNC bank started a wholesome joke where they use the song as an economic indicator. If the gifts are repeated each day, it means that they're going to be receiving the same gifts from the second day on to the twelfth. This means that by the time the twelfth day is over, the narrator of the song has received a whopping 364 gifts that fortnight. They make certain assumptions, like the people in the song, for example, aren't bought and given like property, but are hired in The Christmas Price Index (the cost of buying one of each of the gifts) and The True Cost of Christmas (the price of all the items, plus the repetitions). The first ever Christmas Price Index, from 1984, came in at $12,623.10, and that year's True Cost of Christmas was $61,318.94. 2019's Christmas Price Index was $38,993.59 and the True Cost of Christmas was $170,298.03. 

The Lyrics

Anonymous broadside, Angus, Newcastle, 1774-1825

Here are the lyrics to "The 12 Days of Christmas" as they stand currently:


On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me

A partridge in a pear tree

On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me

Two turtle doves, and

A partridge in a pear tree


On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me

Three french hens

Two turtle doves, and

A partridge in a pear tree


On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave 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 gave 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 gave 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 gave 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 gave 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 gave 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 gave 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 gave 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 gave 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

Tags: christianity | Christians | Christmas

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Brian Gilmore

Writer

Brian Gilmore has been writing about and studying everything the Internet loves since 2006 and you've probably accidentally read something he's written before, and if you haven't, you're already reading this bio, so that's a good start. He's a culture junkie ranging from Internet culture, to world history, to listening to way more podcasts than the average human being ever should. He's obsessed with the social catalysts that have caused some of the biggest movements of the last few hundred years, including everything from their effect on the pop culture of the time, to where they end up ideologically. The idea that generations have a beginning and an end is fascinating to him, and the fact that their lasting effects at any given point of their evolution can steer the direction of the entire world lead to some interesting questions, and answers, about our current culture at any given time. He also loves retrofuturism, phobias, and the fact that every pop culture icon has at least a few photos of them that make you feel like you might know them. History isn't a collection of stories as much as it is humanity trying its hardest to maintain a grasp on lessons we've learned before as a species, and that is just way too interesting to not look into a few hours a week. Oh and he used to collect Pez dispensers.