Twelve Days of Christmas: The Origins

By Professor Helen Parish

Once again we have a chance to embrace that particularly delightful seasonal treat, untangling the Christmas fairy lights. If the season of goodwill has barely started before the recriminations and apportioning of blame begin, consider the possibility that by leaving last year’s Christmas decorations up beyond Twelfth Night, you effectively opened the door of your home to goblins. These mischief working creatures are most likely the culprits in pretty much every other form of domestic misfortune, from catastrophic culinary failures to broken china, spoilt milk, mice in the larder, and tangled strings of lights. As Robert Herrick’s mid-seventeenth century poem ‘Ceremony Upon Candlemas Eve’ warns For look, how many leaves there be…So many goblins you shall see.


[Image credit: Broadside: “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, Angus, Newcastle, 1774-1825. Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

So when is Twelfth Night? Working this out should be easy enough – you will recognise the twelfth day of Christmas when you are woken up in the morning by the sound of 184 birds, 40 maids, a further 36 ladies, 22 pipers and 12 drummers fighting over 40 gold rings outside your house. If you are the lucky recipient of all the items described in The Twelve Days of Christmas, you will have been deluged with a grand total of 364 gifts.

It is hard not to wonder whether the generosity of the gift-giver might actually undermine his or her ‘true love’ status. Just how much gratitude is it possible to show once the cows have trampled the birds under foot, and leaping lords are cavorting with dancing ladies on your lawn to the tune of the piping pipers who have set up stall on your doorstep? And if we abandon the literal meaning and accept that the ‘gold rings’ are not in fact items of jewellery, but ring-necked pheasants, or ‘goldspinks’ (goldfinches) then there are another 40 reasons why neither you nor your neighbours are likely to be pleased (unless you are particularly keen ornithologists with a passing interest in pipes, drums, and dairy farming.)

goldfinch[Image credit: A hoopoe and goldfinch set in natural surroundings. Etching by A. Collaert. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY]

Fortunately, even in the world of free next-day deliveries, it is highly unlikely that anyone will actually send you all the gifts detailed in the Twelve Days of Christmas. The annual ‘Christmas Price Index’ charts the cost each year of the items listed in the carol if purchased in the US. In November 2018, the total bill was an eye-watering $170,609, with the cheapest item, the partridges, coming in at $20 each. In keeping with the traditional Christmas warning ‘batteries not included’, the price of eight ‘maids-a-milking’ does not include the cows themselves, and the fees of the ‘lords-a-leaping’ are based on those charged by the Philadelphia Ballet rather than by particularly agile members of the British peerage.

Before you get complacent, remember that if you are peering at this growing menagerie through the branches of your Christmas tree at sunrise on 6th January, that’s the morning after Twelfth Night. But if you miss the Twelfth Night deadline for cramming fairy lights back into their improbably small box in any semblance of order, don’t panic. Christmas decorations left up after the feast of the Epiphany shouldn’t be torn down in haste, but rather left in place until the eve of Candlemas. This will ensure that your home remains free from an infestation of goblins, and also gives you another month in which to enjoy the sound of needles dropping from the Christmas tree every time someone sneezes in an adjacent room.

Setting aside the (not insubstantial) matter of mischievous goblins, punitive cost, and the general improbability of anyone sending you everything listed in the song, what does the Twelve Days of Christmas carol describe? The pattern is very much that of an accumulative memory song or forfeit game, and there are certainly reports of children and adults giving forfeits if mistakes were made in the recitation. Where oral and written tradition intersect, it is clear that the precise list of gifts presented by the ‘true love’ is not entirely static, but rather well anchored in local custom which informed the many variations on the theme.

Even the starting point, a ‘partridge in a pear tree’ may not be all that it seems; partridges were often associated with evil rather than good, making them a rather unusual first gift from a determined suitor. Turtle doves were common enough in the UK in summer to be served up at banquets, and the eggs of Faverolles (French hens) were certainly available enough in winter to make these birds desirable as gifts. The ‘calling birds’ of the modern rhyme are most likely ‘colley birds’ or blackbirds, although a gift of four of these would clearly only get the recipient a fraction of the way towards the four-and-twenty blackbirds required for the proverbial pie. The six laying geese are likely to be greylags, a native British bird that is still eaten at Christmas, rather than the now infamous Canada geese that populate the University of Reading Whiteknights campus.

Since the twelfth century, all unmarked mute swans in England have been considered to be the property of the crown, so sending seven of these birds to one’s true love may turn out to be a good way of guaranteeing that you spend the rest of the year in jail. But the seventh day of Christmas was not only a time to watch swans-a-swimming; local variants in this part of the song substitute seven steers-a-running, which although easing congestion in the garden pond might ultimately be rather more destructive than the swans. Hares-a-running, dancing ladies, leaping lords, piping pipers and drumming drummers are slotted variously into days nine, ten, eleven and twelve in different versions of the song. But before invoking a no-quibble returns policy to send the dancers and musicians back from whence they came, take heed of the risks involved in accepting delivery of the most common alternatives in the carol; well-tuned pipers might actually be a better option than thumbing through a dictionary in search of the collective noun for bears-a-baiting, and bulls-a-roaring in order to explain your predicament to the local constabulary.

Spare a thought for the inhabitants of New England, for whom the gifts promised include twelve guns shooting, eleven bears chasing, ten men hunting, along with assorted coffee bowls, chests of linen, and a parrot on a juniper tree. In nineteenth century Scotland, the unwary might well be lulled into a false sense of security by the arrival of early gifts in the form of ‘merry’ ducks and swans, at least until the next delivery turns up with a ‘papingo-aye’ (parrot, or sometimes peacock), and a ‘bull that was brown.’ Just don’t spend too long contemplating whether the colour of said bull is relevant – the imminent arrival of the next item on the list, an Arabian baboon, almost certainly requires your full attention.

Much of this presupposes a literal reading of the gifts described in The Twelve Days of Christmas. But it has been suggested that the words of the carol are not simply an eccentric list of gifts, but a catechetical tool used in persecuted Roman Catholic communities in early modern England to educate children in the fundamentals of the faith. In this interpretation, the gifts are symbolic rather than real, intended to provide a visual mnemonic:

  • Christ is symbolised by the partridge, a bird willing to sacrifice its life to protect its young.
  • The two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments, and the three French hens the three persons of the Trinity.
  • The four calling birds were the four Gospels, and the five gold rings the Pentateuch.
  • The six geese a-laying represent the six days of creation, and the swans a swimming the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit.
  • Eight maids a-milking represent the eight beatitudes, and the nine ladies dancing the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit.
  • The ten lords a-leaping stand for the Ten Commandments, and the eleven pipers piping the eleven faithful Apostles.
  • The twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in The Apostles’ Creed.

Tempting as this might be – and it has fuelled some lively end of term discussions in one of my final-year undergraduate classes – it is hard to find much evidence to support this interpretation. There is little that would be contentious in the symbolism that is read into the carol, and certainly nothing that would be distinctively Roman Catholic to the extent that it would warrant secrecy. The list of gifts is in itself sufficiently hard to remember that its efficacy as a memory aid for points of faith is debatable.

Still confused? Sit back, watch this space, and listen to colleagues in the University of Reading History department as they explore the original sentiments of the Twelve Days of Christmas, and then challenge some of the assumptions that sit within it, using their own research. And, of course, put Twelfth Night in your diary now!

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