Literature

A Short Analysis of the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ Song

‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ is one of the most famous Christmas songs. It is also, perhaps, the one that has attracted the most theories and origin-stories relating to its meaning and history. What each of the gifts given on the twelve days of Christmas might represent, for instance, has kept people busy for several centuries. Before we analyse the song and its lyrics, here’s a reminder of the words to ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ as it’s usually sung.

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.

On the fourth day of Christmas,
my true love sent 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 sent 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 sent 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 sent 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 sent 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 sent 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 sent 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 sent 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 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!

As Iona and Peter Opie note in their indispensable guide to nursery rhymes, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford Dictionary of Nusery Rhymes), ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ is a ‘rhyme or chant’ whose meaning ‘has yet to be satisfactorily explained’; they add, ‘if it has any’. The Opies report that the words to ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ are first found in print in 1780, in a children’s book, Mirth without Mischief, as part of a ‘memory-and-forfeits’ game. In other words, the song would be sung as part of a game that involved the leader kicking things off by singing the words to the ‘first day of Christmas’, then these would be repeated by each of the other players in turn, who would each add one of the subsequent verses to their recital.

So, as with ‘Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses’ and numerous other famous rhymes, the words appear to have begun as part of a children’s singing game. The words appear to have been derived from a French original. When the tune was first set we cannot say for sure, although the most familiar one – including the distinctive delivery of the line ‘five gold rings’ (often ‘golden rings’ in the US) – was only published as recently as 1909, and was by the English composer Frederic Austin.

But what is the significance of each of the gifts mentioned in ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’? The theory or origin-story that each of the gifts is a code for some aspect of Christianity (i.e. the partridge represents Christ, the two turtle doves are the two testaments of the Bible, the three French hens are the three cardinal virtues, etc.), and that the song was written so that persecuted Christians could memorise and discuss aspects of their faith in secret, has been roundly debunked.

Another theory is that this list of birds is a recipe of some sort: Mark Forsyth, in his entertaining history of Christmas customs, A Christmas Cornucopia: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Yuletide Traditions, puts forward the notion that the order of the birds is significant, since it suggests one bird being stuffed inside another for some grand Christmas banquet. He gives the example of a Christmas recipe from 1747 in which a large turkey is stuffed with a whole goose which is itself stuffed with a chicken (which is stuffed with a pigeon, which is stuffed with a partridge…). However, this tantalising theory falls down when you get to the drummers drumming, maids-a-milking, and so on.

Some people also believe that each of the twelve gifts represents one of the months of the year; but again, what relation the gold rings have to May, for instance, or the partridge to January for that matter, is not easy to discern, and this analysis has no firm evidence in its favour either. Four ‘calling birds’ were originally ‘colly birds’, i.e. blackbirds (‘colly’ related to coal).

‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, in the last analysis, probably began life as a memory-and-forfeit game for children – and later, all members of the family – to sing and play along with at Christmas time. Its lyrics relate to the game, though why these specific gifts were chosen remains uncertain.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

Leave a Reply