Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Twelve Days of Christmas
The Twelve Days of Christmas are (depending on differing authorities and sources) either the days from December 26 to January 6, (January 6 being the Epiphany), or the days from Christmas through the eve January 5 of Epiphany. Arguing in favor of the latter is that it coincides more closely with the liturgical Christmas season. However, no less an authority than the 19th century folklorist Sir James George Frazer, favors the December 26 - January 6 interpretation: The last of the mystic twelve days is Epiphany or Twelfth Night ... (The Golden Bough, 1922)
The date of the song's first performance is not known, though it was used in European and Scandinavian traditions as early as the 16th century. An interesting fact about this song is that the total number of presents given (counting 12 partridges, 11*2 turtle doves...) is 364 which is 1 less than the number of days in a year.
"Twelve Days of Christmas" is a cumulative song, meaning that each verse is built on top of all the previous verses. There are twelve verses, each describing a gift given by "my true love" on one of the twelve days of Christmas.
The first verse runs:
- On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
- A partridge in a pear tree.
The second verse:
- On the second day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
- Two turtle doves
- and a partridge in a pear tree.
and so on. The last verse is:
- On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent 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.
Some Christians assign symbolism to the gifts in the song. One version of these assigned meanings is:
- The 'partridge in a pear tree' is Jesus
- The 'two turtle doves' are the Old and New Testaments
- The 'three French hens' are the three virtues, faith, hope, and love
- The 'four calling birds' are the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
- 'Five golden rings' are the first five books of the Bible, or the Pentateuch
- 'Six geese a-laying' refer to the six days of the Creation
- 'Seven swans a-swimming' are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit
- 'Eight maids a-milking' are the eight Beatitudes
- 'Nine ladies dancing' are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit
- 'Ten lords a' leaping' are the Ten Commandments
- 'Eleven pipers piping' are the eleven faithful Apostles
- 'Twelve drummers drumming' are the twelve doctrines in the Apostles Creed
This interpretation is usually taught with a story (widely considered to be apocryphal, as it is unsupported by any historical evidence) that English Catholics, suffering persecution in the 16th century, wrote the song with these hidden meanings.
Sometimes "gave to me" is used instead of "sent to me"; also "five golden rings" is sometimes "five gold rings."
The line four calling birds is an Americanization of the traditional English wording four colly birds, and in some places, such as Australia, the variation calling is supplanting the original. Colly is a dialect word meaning black and refers to the European blackbird Turdus merula.
The line four calling birds in some versions is four coiled birds.
As well, the last four verses are sometimes interchanged, so that one version of the song may have nine pipers, ten drummers, eleven ladies, twelve lords, or any other combination.
Many parodies of the "Twelve Days of Christmas" have been written. The version performed by the Canadian comedy team Bob & Doug McKenzie replaces the first gift with "a beer, in a tree" (awkwardly metered to match the traditional "a partridge in a pear tree"), substituting the other gifts on the list with other stereotypically Canadian items such as French toast, back bacon, and tuques. Allan Sherman and Bob Rivers have written similar parodies.
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