Making Sense of the “12 Days of Christmas”

Karla B. asks: Why is there twelve days of Christmas in that song? Does anyone really celebrate Christmas for twelve days?

12-days-of-christmasEven the most ardent fans of Christmas will agree – the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” does not make a whole lot of sense. What is a partridge doing in a pear tree? Partridges are ground-nesting birds! So where did perhaps the most earworm inducing Christmas song in history come from, and why are there twelve days in it, instead of just one?

To begin with, while most people today only celebrate one day of Christmas, the holiday actually is supposed to encompass twelve days for many religious groups. While the exact days differ depending on the sect of Christianity, for most, the holiday begins on December 25th (Jesus’s birth) and ends on January 6th, which is known as the “Epiphany.” In between there are three feasts to celebrate the birth of Jesus and the “Incarnation,” as in the embodiment of God in human flesh. Hence, the “12 days” of Christmas part of the song.

Now to the origin of the song itself: For this, we’re going to start by dispelling the amazingly popular myth that is touted by many an otherwise reputable source, despite a complete lack of evidence supporting the notion. To wit, many believe The 12 Days of Christmas is a Catholic catechism- as in it was written to help teach Christian values and a better understanding of religious tenants. As to why the lyrics are coded, the hypothesis goes that it was written at a time when Catholics were legally barred from practicing many aspects of their religion in Britain and Ireland via Penal Laws. So, each seemingly bizarre gift in the song is supposed to be a code for a particular symbol in the Catholic faith.

While sources differ slightly on what exactly the symbols mean, it’s usually stated that the “true love” is either God or Jesus Christ; the partridge in the pear tree is Jesus (however, there are discrepancies on the interpretations of the particular action Jesus is supposed to be doing nestled in the pear tree); the two turtle doves are the old and new testaments; the French hens are the theological virtues, faith, hope and charity; the four calling birds are the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (or representing the individuals themselves); the five golden rings are the first five books of the Old Testament; the six geese are the six days of creation; the seven swans are the seven sacraments of the Holy Spirit; the milking maids are the eight blessings in the sermon on the Mount of Olives; nine ladies are the Holy Spirit’s nine fruits; ten “Lords a-leaping” are actually the Ten Commandments; eleven pipers piping are the eleven apostles; and, finally, twelve drummers drumming are the twelve points of belief in the Apostles’ Creed…

Much like the idea that the candy cane was invented to symbolize Jesus, his purity, and his blood shed on the cross being complete fiction (see: The Truth About the Origin of the Candy Cane), the 12 Days of Christmas lyrics don’t appear to have any such religious symbolism, though of course there’s nothing wrong with creating such symbolism around existing traditions. But the subject of this article is the actual origin of the song, so you’ll forgive us if we have to dispel the widely touted symbolic origin story.

As for that, the idea that the 12 Days of Christmas was a vehicle to secretly teach Christian tenets seems to have been first proposed in 1979 by Hugh D. McKellar in a piece titled, “How to Decode the Twelve Days of Christmas.”  Much more famously, a few years later Father Hal Stockert came up with his own version of the same idea. When he later repeated this in an article published online in 1995, the notion spread like wildfire. As for how he claims he uncovered the “truth” about The 12 Days of Christmas, Fr. Stockert responded to the naysayers, stating,

Over the years since this was written, in about 1982, and first put out for the online world to enjoy, I have been deluged every year with hundreds of “you can’t prove this!” kinds of letters.  Obviously, I cannot prove *anything* to anyone who doesn’t care to believe.

However, for those who ARE interested in the provenance of the data, and to save myself the burden of having my inbox filled with notes asking for evidence to beat debunkers over the head with, I will simply add this and leave it to the reader to accept it or reject it as he or she may choose.

I found this information while I was researching for an entirely unrelated project which required me to go to the Latin texts of the sources pertinent to my research.  Among those primary documents there were letters from Irish priests, mostly Jesuits, writing back to the motherhouse at Douai-Rheims, in France, mentioning this purely as an aside, and not at all as part of the main content of the letters.  In those days, even though there are those who will deny this, too, it was a sufficient crime between 1538 and nearly 1700 just to BE a Jesuit in England to find oneself hanged, drawn and quartered if he fell into the hands of the authorities… Whether you believe it or not is irrelevant to me.  You can enjoy it or not, as you choose.  I hadn’t written it as a doctoral thesis, simply as some delicious tidbit I thought the world would be delighted to share over a holiday season.  It seems, however, that there is more than one grinch, and I am not at all interested in feeding the others who remain past the one in the Christmas cartoons. Believe if you will.  Dissent if you choose.  Let the rest enjoy the story.

When asked to produce said primary documents to back up his assertions, he stated, “I wish I could give them…, but all of my notes were ruined when our church had a plumbing leak and the basement flooded…”

The good father would later recant slightly, noting on an update to his original 1995 webpage on the subject,

P.S. It has come to our attention that this tale is made up of both fact and fiction. Hopefully it will be accepted in the spirit it was written. As an encouragement to people to keep their faith alive, when it is easy, and when any outward expressions of their faith could mean their life…

And, indeed, it turns out, despite extensive research done on the origins of this song to find such a connection, there has never been any documented evidence whatsoever linking it to such religious symbolism.

Beyond the lack of evidence, this hypothesis strains credibility on a number of points. First, nothing in any of that stated symbolism would have been anything the Catholics couldn’t have sung or talked about directly under the aforementioned Penal Laws, as the stated symbolism doesn’t touch on anything uniquely Catholic- it’s all stuff the Church of England and most other Christian denominations have as part of their core doctrine. So members of those churches would have been more than happy to sing a song about such things directly.

Others try to get around this point by purporting that it wasn’t a song for Catholics, but written for all Christians who couldn’t practice their faith openly. However, the song is literally titled the The 12 Days of Christmas and contains mention of Christmas in the lyrics as a core element of the song going back to the earliest known version… Perhaps not the best choice if one wanted to avoid letting on your celebration and lyrics have some connection to Christianity. And, of course, finding somewhere in the Western world around the time the song was written where all sects of Christianity were harshly banned is something of an effort in futility.

Next up- the lyrics and order of items varied considerably not just over time but at any given time. The most common version most are familiar with today was put together by composer Frederic Austin in 1909. These many variations right from the start not only results in some of the symbolism breaking down, but also further illustrates said symbolism is a modern invention based on the relatively modern version of the song. For instance, the “four calling birds” is supposed to symbolize Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in some way. This sort of makes sense, until you learn that the original lyrics were not “calling birds” but “collie birds,” which was just another way to say “blackbirds.”

Other early versions included such things as “11 bulls a-beating” and “12 bells-a-ringing.”  The “five golden rings” are also not thought to originally refer to actual rings, but, in keeping with the theme of bird gift giving, probably refer to the necks of ring-necked pheasants. (If you haven’t picked up on it yet, the song is essentially just a silly song about feasting on birds and milk for several days and then dancing about for fun.)

On top of that, connections between the lyrics and the supposed symbols they represent are absurdly tenuous in most cases, meaning if this song was really meant to teach children Catholic precepts, as is so often stated, they must have had a lot of confused kids on their hands, requiring a lot of explaining to get the message across, with little hope said urchins remember what was said the next year when it was time to sing the song again. In that sense, the song would much better serve to teach the children how to count to twelve than teach religious canon.

So what does the actual hard documented evidence say about where the song The 12 Days of Christmas came from?

There are three known French carols that are exceptionally similar to the Twelve Days of Christmas and pre-date it by a good margin, with versions possibly going all the way back to the 8th century, but this isn’t fully clear. Notably, these songs also include giving a partridge as the first gift given, though instead of being in a pear tree describes a “merry little partridge.”  As to how this is thought to connect to the English version’s nonsensical giving of a partridge in a pear tree, the Old French for partridge is “pertriz.”

As for the first known published version of the English version of the song that has survived through today, this came about in a 1780 children’s book called Mirth Without Mischief under the title “The Twelve Days of Christmas sung at King Pepin’s Ball.”

In the book, the song does not have any religious connotation outside of mention of Christmas, but is explicitly stated to be a song to be used in a children’s memory-forfeit game. Essentially, if a child stumbled over a verse, they were more or less “out,” with the song not only being difficult due to the number of items one must keep track of, but, as professor of classics Edward Phinney, notes, “It’s… full of tongue-twisters.”

While there are various ways in which these sorts of memory-forfeit games could be played, Phinney also notes that in such children’s games, the singers would often split into sides of boys and girls with each trading verses. When someone got out, they had to kiss someone on the opposite side or were otherwise made to pay a trifle penalty.

Illustrating this usage, Thomas Hughes notes in his 1862 work, The Ashen Faggot: A Tale for Christmas,

When all the raisins had been extracted and eaten . . . 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 . . . 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.’

Fast-forward to today and there are literally hundreds of modern versions of “12 Days of Christmas”- some more Muppet-y than others- to go along with the countless variations sung historically. While the original versions weren’t meant to have religious symbolism embedded in them, they were at least meant to be fun; so no matter if you are partial to Donny Osmond or you really love the Rugrats remix, perhaps we can all agree that we should definitely re-establish the practice of giving a kiss when you forget a lyric of the song.

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