It might sound incredible considering that the “Christmas creep” now begins before Halloween, but the real Christmas season actually begins on Christmas Day itself. That’s right: December 25 marks the official start of the 12 Days of Christmas, the Christian tradition that shares its name with a relentless Christmas carol in its head.
Here are a few things you might not know about the song and the season.
What are the 12 days of Christmas?
The 12 days of Christmas are the period of Christian theology which marks the period between the birth of Christ and the coming of the Magi, the three wise men. It begins on December 25 (Christmas) and ends on January 6 (Epiphany, sometimes also called Three Kings Day). The four weeks leading up to Christmas are collectively referred to as Advent, which begins four Sundays before Christmas and ends on December 24.
Some families choose to Mark the 12-day period by observing the feast days of various Saints (including St. Stephen on December 26) and planning daily Christmas-related activities, but for many things get back to business after December 25.
“The 12 Days of Christmas” is also a Christmas carol in which the singer brags about all the cool gifts they received from their “true love” during the 12 days of Christmas. Each verse builds on the previous one, which is a very effective way to annoy family members on road trips.
The lyrics to “The 12 Days of Christmas” Have Changed Over the Years
The version most people know today begins with this verse:
On the first day of Christmas,
my true love sent me
a partridge in a pear tree.
The song then adds a gift for each day, building on the previous verse, until you recite all 12 gifts together:
Day 2: two turtledoves
Day 3: three French hens
Day 4: four songbirds
Day 5: five golden rings
Day 6: Six laying geese
Day 7: Seven swans swimming
Day 8: eight maids at milking
Day 9: nine ladies dance
Day 10: 10 jumping lords
Day 11: 11 pipers piping
Day 12: 12 drummers playing drums
The history of singing is somewhat murky. The first known version first appeared in a 1780 children’s book titled Cheerfulness without mischief. (A first edition of this book sold for $ 23,750 at a Sotheby’s auction in 2014, but you can also purchase a digital copy at Amazon.) Some historians believe the song could be of French origin, but most agree that it was intended as a game of “memory and forfeits”, in which the singers tested their recall of the lyrics and had to give their opponents a “forfeit” – a kiss or some favor – if they made a mistake.
Many variations of the lyrics have existed at different times. Some say “bears bait” or “ships sail”; some name the singer’s mother as the giver of the gift instead of their true love. Early versions list four birds “colly”, an archaic term meaning black as coal (blackbirds, in other words). And some people believe that the five gold rings actually refer to the markings of a ring-necked pheasant, which would align with the bird motif of the first verses.
In any case, the song that most of us know today comes from an English composer named Frederic Austin; in 1909 he put the melody and lyrics (including the change from “colly” to “call”) and added as his own flourish the stretched cadence of “five go-old rings. “
The song is not a coded introduction to Christianity
A popular theory that has been around the Internet is that the lyrics to “12 Days of Christmas” are coded references to Christianity; he postulates that the song was written to help Christians learn and pass on the principles of their faith while avoiding persecution. According to this theory, the different giveaways break down as follows, like the myth debunk website Snopes Explain:
2 Doves = the Old and the New Testament
3 French hens = faith, hope and charity, theological virtues
4 Calling Birds = the four gospels and / or the four evangelists
5 gold rings = the first five books of the Old Testament, the “Pentateuch”, which traces the story of the fall of man from disgrace
6 laying geese = the six days of creation
7 swimming swans = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-treats = the eight beatitudes
9 dancing ladies = the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve doctrines of the Apostles’ Creed
The partridge in the pear tree, of course, represents Jesus Christ.
This theory seems tailor-made for distribution via chain emails, but it actually doesn’t make sense once you examine it. Snopes has a good explanation for the many, many holes in his logic. Most blatant: First, the song’s gifts have nothing to do with their Christian “equivalents”, so the song is fundamentally useless as a way to remember key pillars of the faith. And second, if Christians were so limited in the practice of their faith that they had to hide messages in a song, they couldn’t celebrate Christmas in the first place either – let alone sing Christmas carols.
The late historian William Studwell, known for his expertise in Christmas carols, also refuted the idea of the coded message. As he said at Religious Information Service In 2008:
It wasn’t originally a Catholic song, no matter what you hear on the internet. … Neutral reference books say this is nonsense. If there was such a catechism device, a secret code, it was derived from the original secular song. It’s a derivative, not the source.
Sorry to spoil your dinner fun fact; while I’m at it, I might as well say “Ring Around the Rosie” does not concern the black plague, Is.
Giving someone all the gifts in the song would be … expensive
To calculate the cost of all the gifts from “The 12 Days of Christmas”, I will turn to the annual report of the financial services group PNC. Christmas price index, which PNC has published since 1984 (and which sometimes penetrates school lesson plans). The index calculates the cost of all song gifts based on current market rates; the total for 2019, the most recent year for which figures are available, is $ 38,993.59, or $ 170,298.03 if you count each mention of an item separately (which would equate to 364 gifts in all) – up only 0.2% from 2018.
Bottom Line: Swans are pretty darn expensive (at $ 1,875 each, or $ 13,125 for all seven) but at least remained the same price as in 2018, while the cost of the five gold rings ($ 825 in total) has increased by 10%. Whatever the cost, however, giving someone all of these is probably not a good idea; just think about all the bird poo.
Are there other versions of “The 12 Days of Christmas”?
The structure of “The 12 Days of Christmas” easily lends itself to parodies, of which there have been many. There is Jeff Foxworthy redneck version, Twisted Sister’s heavy metal intake, and, of course, a Muppets version (with John Denver):
There’s also a sort of 12-day Christmas diet, which Olga Khazan from the Atlantic attempted in 2013. She calculated the calories of a serving of each bird mentioned in the song and offset them with the calories burned by the different activities (milking, jumping, etc.). Turns out all that poultry is somehow less greedy than the typical American holiday meal. It sums up:
If you ate all the birds in one day, including the pheasant pie, but not including all the trimmings for the other dishes, and subtracted the energy you spent on milking, dancing, jumping, and drumming, you would have consumed 2384 net calories. . That’s really not bad, considering the average American Thanksgiving dinner is around 4500 calories.
It seems even more reasonable, relatively speaking, when you consider that if you wanted to burn your meal by simply singing its tune of the same name, you would have to do it about 300 times – about 17.5 hours of Christmas carols. And it’s a gift we doubt anyone would appreciate.