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|"The Twelve Days of Christmas"|
|Composer(s)||Traditional with additions by Frederic Austin|
"The Twelve Days of Christmas" (Roud 68) is an English Christmas carol that enumerates in the manner of a cumulative song a series of increasingly grand gifts given on each of the twelve days of Christmas (the twelve days that make up the Christmas season, starting with Christmas Day). The song, published in England in 1780 without music as a chant or rhyme, is thought to be French in origin. "The Twelve Days of Christmas" has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 68. The tunes of collected versions vary. The standard tune now associated with it is derived from a 1909 arrangement of a traditional folk melody by English composer Frederic Austin, who first introduced the now familiar prolongation of the verse "five gold rings".
"The Twelve Days of Christmas" is a cumulative song, meaning that each verse is built on top of the previous verses. There are twelve verses, each describing a gift given by "my true love" on one of the twelve days of Christmas. There are many variations in the lyrics. The lyrics given here are from Frederic Austin's 1909 publication that first established the current form of the carol. 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, each adding one new gift and repeating all the earlier gifts so that each verse is one line longer than its predecessor:
The earliest known version of the lyrics was published in London under the title "The Twelve Days of Christmas sung at King Pepin's Ball", as part of a 1780 children's book, Mirth without Mischief. Subsequent versions have shown considerable variation:
For ease of comparison with Austin's 1909 version given above:
(a) differences in wording, ignoring capitalisation and punctuation, are indicated in italics;
(b) items that do not appear at all in Austin's version are indicated in bold italics.
|My true love sent to me||Partridge in a pear-tree||Turtle doves||French hens||Colly birds||Gold rings||Geese a laying||Swans a swimming||Maids a milking||Drummers drumming||Pipers piping||Ladies dancing||Lords a leaping|
|Angus, 1774–1825||My true love sent to me||Partridge in a pear tree||Turtle doves||French hens||Colly birds||Gold rings||Geese a laying||Swans a swimming||Maids a milking||Drummers drumming||Pipers piping||Ladies dancing||Lords a leaping|
|Halliwell, 1842||My mother sent to me||Partridge in a pear-tree||Turtle doves||French hens||Canary birds||Gold rings||Geese a laying||Swans a swimming||Ladies dancing||Lords a leaping||Ships a sailing||Ladies spinning||Bells ringing|
|Rimbault, c. 1846||My mother sent to me||Parteridge in a pear tree||Turtle doves||French hens||Canary birds||Gold rings||Geese a laying||Swans a swimming||Ladies dancing||Lords a leaping||Ships a sailing||Ladies spinning||Bells ringing|
|Halliwell, 1853||My true love sent to me||Partridge in a pear tree||Turtle doves||French hens||Colly birds||Gold rings||Geese a laying||Swans a swimming||Maids a milking||Drummers drumming||Pipers piping||Ladies dancing||Lords a leaping|
|Salmon, 1855||My true love sent to me||Partridge upon a pear-tree||Turtle-doves||French hens||Collie birds||Gold rings||Geese a-laying||Swans a-swimming||Maids a-milking||Drummers drumming||Pipers piping||Ladies dancing||Lords a-leaping
|Caledonian, 1858||My true love sent to me||Partridge upon a pear-tree||Turtle-doves||French hens||Collie birds||Gold rings||Geese a-laying||Swans a-swimming||Maids a-milking||Drummers drumming||Fifers fifing||Ladies dancing||Lords a-leaping
|Husk, 1864||My true love sent to me||Partridge in a pear-tree||Turtle doves||French hens||Colley birds||Gold rings||Geese a-laying||Swans a-swimming||Maids a-milking||Drummers drumming||Pipers piping||Ladies dancing||Lords a-leaping
|Hughes, 1864||My true love sent to me||Partridge and a pear tree||Turtle-doves||Fat hens||Ducks quacking||Hares running||"and so on"||—||—||—||—||—||—|
|Cliftonian, 1867||My true-love sent to me||Partridge in a pear-tree||Turtle-doves||French hens||Colley birds||Gold rings||Ducks a-laying||Swans swimming||Hares a-running||Ladies dancing||Lords a-leaping||Badgers baiting||Bells a-ringing|
|Clark, 1875||My true love sent to me||Partridge in a pear tree||Turtle doves||French hens||Colour'd birds||Gold rings||Geese laying||Swans swimming||Maids milking||Drummers drumming||Pipers piping||Ladies dancing||Lords leaping|
|Kittredge, 1877 (1917)||My true love sent to me||Some part of a juniper tree, And some part of a juniper tree||French hens||Turtle doves||Colly birds||Gold rings||Geese a-laying||Swans a-swimming||[forgotten by the singer]||Lambs a-bleating||Ladies dancing||Lords a-leading||Bells a-ringing|
|Henderson, 1879||My true love sent to me||Partridge upon a pear tree||Turtle doves||French hens||Curley birds||Gold rings||Geese laying||Swans swimming||Maids milking||Drummers drumming||Pipers piping||—||—|
|Barnes, 1882||My true love sent to me||The sprig of a juniper tree||Turtle doves||French hens||Coloured birds||Gold rings||Geese a-laying||Swans a-swimming||Hares a-running||Bulls a-roaring||Men a-mowing||Dancers a-dancing||Fiddlers a-fiddling|
|Stokoe, 1888||My true love sent to me||Partridge on a pear tree||Turtle doves||French hens||Colly birds||Gold rings||Geese a-laying||Swans a-swimming||Maids a-milking||Drummers drumming||Pipers piping||Ladies dancing||Lords a leaping|
|Kidson, 1891||My true love sent to me||Merry partridge on a pear tree||Turtle doves||French hens||Colley birds||Gold rings||Geese a-laying||Swans a-swimming||Maids a-milking||Drummers drumming||Pipers piping||Ladies dancing||Lords a leaping|
|Scott, 1892||My true love brought to me||Very pretty peacock upon a pear tree||Turtle-doves||French hens||Corley birds||Gold rings||Geese a-laying||Swans a-swimming||Maids a-milking||Pipers playing||Drummers drumming||Lads a-louping||Ladies dancing|
|Cole, 1900||My true love sent to me||Parteridge upon a pear tree||Turtle doves||French hens||Colly birds||Gold rings||Geese a laying||Squabs a swimming||Hounds a running||Bears a beating||Cocks a crowing||Lords a leaping||Ladies a dancing|
|Sharp, 1905||My true Love sent to me||Goldie ring, and the part of a June apple tree||Turtle doves, and the part of a mistletoe bough||French hens||Colley birds||Goldie rings||Geese a-laying||Swans a-swimming||Boys a-singing||Ladies dancing||Asses racing||Bulls a-beating||Bells a-ringing|
|Austin, 1909||My true love sent to me||Partridge in a Pear Tree||Turtle Doves||French Hens||Calling Birds||Gold Rings||Geese a-laying||Swans a-swimming||Maids a-milking||Ladies dancing||Lords a-leaping||Pipers piping||Drummers drumming|
|Swortzell, 1966||My true love gave to me||Partridge in a pear tree||Turtle doves||French hens||Collie birds||Golden rings||Geese a-laying||Swans a-swimming||Maids a-milking||Pipers piping||Drummers drumming||Lords a-leaping||Ladies dancing|
A similar cumulative verse from Scotland, "The Yule Days", has been likened to "The Twelve Days of Christmas" in the scholarly literature. It has thirteen days rather than twelve, and the number of gifts does not increase in the manner of "The Twelve Days". Its final verse, as published in Chambers, Popular Rhymes, Fireside Stories, and Amusements of Scotland (1842), runs as follows:
The king sent his lady on the thirteenth Yule day,
Three stalks o' merry corn,
Three maids a-merry dancing,
Three hinds a-merry hunting,
An Arabian baboon,
Three swans a-merry swimming,
Three ducks a-merry laying,
A bull that was brown,
A goose that was grey,
A pippin go aye;
Wha learns my carol and carries it away?
In the Faroe Islands, there is a comparable counting Christmas song. The gifts include: one feather, two geese, three sides of meat, four sheep, five cows, six oxen, seven dishes, eight ponies, nine banners, ten barrels, eleven goats, twelve men, thirteen hides, fourteen rounds of cheese and fifteen deer. These were illustrated in 1994 by local cartoonist Óli Petersen (born 1936) on a series of two stamps issued by the Faroese Philatelic Office.
"Les Douze Mois" ("The Twelve Months") (also known as "La Perdriole"—"The Partridge") is another similar cumulative verse from France that has been likened to The Twelve Days of Christmas. Its final verse, as published in de Coussemaker, Chants Populaires des Flamands de France (1856), runs as follows:
Le douzièm' jour d'l'année , [the twelfth day of the year]
Que me donn'rez vous ma mie? [what will you give me, my love?]
Douze coqs chantants, [twelve singing cockerels]
Onze plats d'argent, [eleven silver dishes]
Dix pigeons blancs, [ten white pigeons]
Neuf bœufs cornus, [nine horned oxen]
Huit vaches mordants, [eight biting cows]
Sept moulins à vent, [seven windmills]
Six chiens courants, [six running dogs]
Cinq lapins courant par terre, [five rabbits running along the ground]
Quat' canards volant en l'air, [four ducks flying in the air]
Trois rameaux de bois, [three wooden branches]
Deux tourterelles, [two turtle doves]
Un' perdrix sole, [one lone partridge]
Qui va, qui vient, qui vole, [who goes, who comes, who flies]
Qui vole dans les bois. [who flies in the woods]
The exact origins and the meaning of the song are unknown, but it is highly probable that it originated from a children's memory and forfeit game.
The twelve days in the song are the twelve days starting with Christmas Day, or in some traditions, the day after Christmas (26 December) (Boxing Day or St. Stephen's Day, as being the feast day of St. Stephen Protomartyr), to the day before Epiphany, or the Feast of the Epiphany (6 January, or the Twelfth Day). Twelfth Night is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "the evening of the fifth of January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of the Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking."
The best known English version was first printed in English in 1780 in a little book intended for children, Mirth without Mischief, as a Twelfth Night "memories-and-forfeits" game, in which a leader recited a verse, each of the players repeated the verse, the leader added another verse, and so on until one of the players made a mistake, with the player who erred having to pay a penalty, such as offering up a kiss or a sweet.
In the northern counties of England, the song was often called the "Ten Days of Christmas", as there were only ten gifts. It was also known in Somerset, Dorsetshire, and elsewhere in England. The kinds of gifts vary in a number of the versions, some of them becoming alliterative tongue-twisters. "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was also widely popular in the United States and Canada. It is mentioned in the section on "Chain Songs" in Stith Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (Indiana University Studies, Vol. 5, 1935), p. 416.
There is evidence pointing to the North of England, specifically the area around Newcastle upon Tyne, as the origin of the carol. Husk, in the 1864 excerpt quoted below, stated that the carol was "found on broadsides printed at Newcastle at various periods during the last hundred and fifty years", i.e. from approximately 1714. In addition, many of the nineteenth century citations come from the Newcastle area.
Salmon, writing from Newcastle, claimed in 1855 that the song "[had] been, up to within twenty years, extremely popular as a schoolboy's Christmas chant".
Husk, writing in 1864, stated:
This piece is found on broadsides printed at Newcastle at various periods during the last hundred and fifty years. On one of these sheets, nearly a century old, it is entitled "An Old English Carol," but it can scarcely be said to fall within that description of composition, being rather fitted for use in playing the game of "Forfeits," to which purpose it was commonly applied in the metropolis upwards of forty years since. The practice was for one person in the company to recite the first three lines; a second, the four following; and so on; the person who failed in repeating her portion correctly being subjected to some trifling forfeit.
[A] cry for forfeits arose. So the party sat down round Mabel on benches brought out from under the table, and Mabel began, --
The first day of Christmas my true love sent to me a partridge and a pear-tree;
The second day of Christmas my true love sent to me two turtle-doves, a partridge, and a pear-tree;
The third day of Christmas my true love sent to me three fat hens, two turtle-doves, a partridge, and a pear-tree;
The fourth day of Christmas my true love sent to me four ducks quacking, three fat hens, two turtle-doves, a partridge, and a pear-tree;
The fifth day of Christmas my true love sent to me five hares running, four ducks quacking, three fat hens, two turtle-doves, a partridge, and a pear-tree.
And so on. Each day was taken up and repeated all round; and for every breakdown (except by little Maggie, who struggled with desperately earnest round eyes to follow the rest correctly, but with very comical results), the player who made the slip was duly noted down by Mabel for a forfeit.
Barnes (1882), stated that the last verse "is to be said in one breath".
Scott (1892), reminiscing about Christmas and New Year's celebrations in Newcastle around the year 1844, described a performance thus:
A lady begins it, generally an elderly lady, singing the first line in a high clear voice, the person sitting next takes up the second, the third follows, at first gently, but before twelfth day is reached the whole circle were joining in with stentorian noise and wonderful enjoyment.
"The Twelve Days" was a Christmas game. It was a customary thing in a friend's house to play "The Twelve Days," or "My Lady's Lap Dog," every Twelfth Day night. The party was usually a mixed gathering of juveniles and adults, mostly relatives, and before supper — that is, before eating mince pies and twelfth cake — this game and the cushion dance were played, and the forfeits consequent upon them always cried. The company were all seated round the room. The leader of the game commenced by saying the first line. […] The lines for the "first day" of Christmas was said by each of the company in turn ; then the first "day" was repeated, with the addition of the "second" by the leader, and then this was said all round the circle in turn. This was continued until the lines for the "twelve days" were said by every player. For every mistake a forfeit — a small article belonging to the person — had to be given up. These forfeits were afterwards "cried" in the usual way, and were not returned to the owner until they had been redeemed by the penalty inflicted being performed.
According to The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, "Suggestions have been made that the gifts have significance, as representing the food or sport for each month of the year. Importance [certainly has] long been attached to the Twelve Days, when, for instance, the weather on each day was carefully observed to see what it would be in the corresponding month of the coming year. Nevertheless, whatever the ultimate origin of the chant, it seems probable [that] the lines that survive today both in England and France are merely an irreligious travesty."
An anonymous "antiquarian", writing in 1867, speculated that "pear-tree" is a corruption of French perdrix (partridge), and "colley" a corruption of French collet (ruff, hence "we at once have a bird with a ruff, i.e., the ruff-pigeon").
Cecil Sharp, writing in 1916, observed that "from the constancy in English, French, and Languedoc versions of the 'merry little partridge,' I suspect that 'pear-tree' is really perdrix (Old French pertriz) carried into England"; and "juniper tree" in some English versions may have been "joli perdrix," [pretty partridge]. Sharp also suggests the adjective "French" in "three French hens", probably simply means "foreign".
According to Iona and Peter Opie, the red-legged (or French) partridge perches in trees more frequently than the native common (or grey) partridge and was not successfully introduced into England until about 1770. 
William S. Baring-Gould suggests that the presents sent on the first seven days were all birds—the "five gold rings" were not actually gold rings, but refer to the five golden rings of the ringed pheasant. Others suggest the gold rings refer to "five goldspinks"—a goldspink being an old name for a goldfinch; or even canaries. However, the 1780 publication includes an illustration that clearly depicts the "five gold rings" as being jewellery.
In 1979, a Canadian hymnologist, Hugh D. McKellar, published an article, "How to Decode the Twelve Days of Christmas" in which he suggested that "The Twelve Days of Christmas" lyrics were intended as a catechism song to help young Catholics learn their faith, at a time when practising Catholicism was criminalised in England (1558 until 1829). Three years later in 1982, Fr. Hal Stockert wrote an article (subsequently posted on-line in 1995) in which he suggested a similar possible use of the twelve gifts as part of a catechism. The possibility that the twelve gifts were used as a catechism during English and Irish Catholic penal times was also hypothesized in this same time period (1987 and 1992) by Fr. James Gilhooley, chaplain of Mount Saint Mary College of Newburgh, New York. Snopes.com, a website reviewing urban legends, Internet rumours, e-mail forwards, and other stories of unknown or questionable origin, also concludes that the hypothesis of the twelve gifts of Christmas being a surreptitious catechism is incorrect.
The now-standard melody for the carol was published in 1909 by Novello & Co.. English composer Frederic Austin fitted the words to a traditional melody, to which he added his own two-bar motif for "Five gold rings". Many of the decisions Austin made with regard to the lyrics subsequently became widespread:
The time signature of this song is not constant, unlike most popular music. This irregular meter perhaps reflects the song's folk origin. The introductory lines, such as "On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me", are made up of two 4/4 bars, while most of the lines naming gifts receive one 3/4 bar per gift with the exception of "Five gold(en) rings," which receives two 4/4 bars, "Two turtle doves" getting a 4/4 bar with "And a" on its fourth beat and "Partridge in a pear tree" getting two 4/4 bars of music. In most versions, a 4/4 bar of music immediately follows "Partridge in a pear tree." "On the" is found in that bar on the 4th (pickup) beat for the next verse. The successive bars of three for the gifts surrounded by bars of four give the song its hallmark "hurried" quality.
The second to fourth verses' melody is different from that of the fifth to twelfth verses. Before the fifth verse (when "five gold(en) rings" is first sung), the melody, using solfege, is "sol re mi fa re" for the fourth to second items, and this same melody is thereafter sung for the twelfth to sixth items. However, the melody for "four colly birds, three French hens, two turtle doves" changes from this point, differing from the way these lines were sung in the opening four verses.
In the final verse, Austin inserted a flourish on the words "Five Gold Rings". This has not been copied by later versions, which simply repeat the melody from the earlier verses.
In the 19th century, most sources for the lyrics do not include music, and those that do often include music different from what has become the standard melody.
Since 1984, the cumulative costs of the items mentioned in the song have been used as a tongue-in-cheek economic indicator. Assuming the gifts are repeated in full in each round of the song, then a total of 364 items are delivered by the twelfth day. This custom began with and is maintained by PNC Bank. Two pricing charts are created, referred to as the Christmas Price Index and The True Cost of Christmas. The former is an index of the current costs of one set of each of the gifts given by the True Love to the singer of the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas". The latter is the cumulative cost of all the gifts with the repetitions listed in the song. The people mentioned in the song are hired, not purchased. The total costs of all goods and services for the 2015 Christmas Price Index is US$34,130.99, or $155,407.18 for all 364 items. The original 1984 cost was $12,623.10. The index has been criticised for not accurately reflecting the true cost of the gifts featured in the Christmas carol.
As with the Easter cycle, churches today celebrate the Christmas cycle in different ways. Practically all Protestants observe Christmas itself, with services on 25 December or the evening before. Anglicans, Lutherans and other churches that use the ecumenical Revised Common Lectionary will likely observe the four Sundays of Advent, maintaining the ancient emphasis on the eschatological (First Sunday), ascetic (Second and Third Sundays), and scriptural/historical (Fourth Sunday). Besides Christmas Eve/Day, they will observe a 12-day season of Christmas from 25 December to 5 January.
Called Christmastide or Twelvetide, this twelve-day version began on December 25, Christmas Day, and lasted until the evening of January 5. During Twelvetide, other feast days are celebrated.
In any case, really evocative symbols do not allow of [sic] definitive explication, exhausting all possibilities. I can at most report what this song's symbols have suggested to me in the course of four decades, hoping thereby to start you on your own quest.
Despite Father Stockert's own acknowledgment of his mistake, years later Catholics in the United States (in particular) continue to spread this urban legend every Christmas season.
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