It resurfaces every holiday season, along with gingerbread, mistletoe and kissing balls, and Hallmark Channel Christmas movies. The classic carol, the "12 Days of Christmas” (or also written "The Twelve Days of Christmas"), is a yuletide tradition every bit as reliable and beloved as trimming the Christmas tree or making a batch of your favorite eggnog. Who can’t recall at least a few of the strange and downright silly-sounding gifts mentioned (repeatedly) in the lyrics, which range from a partridge in a pear tree all the way up to 12 drummers drumming? After all, the Christmas song is not only a standard of carolers from coast to coast, but it’s the type of catchy little tune that stubbornly lodges itself in your head, too, playing on repeat as you prepare the Christmas ham and start your gift wrapping.
But haven’t you ever wondered about the "12 Days of Christmas" meaning? Or the origins of this somewhat odd, if extremely catchy, Christmas song? The lyrics have an old-fashioned sound to them, with all the maids a-milking and lords a-leaping, indicating they were probably written long ago. How old is it? And what exactly are the "12 Days of Christmas," anyhow? Find out the surprising facts we discovered about quintessential holiday tune here.
What are the 12 Days of Christmas?
There actually is a 12 days of Christmas in Western Christianity, but it begins on Christmas Day, not before, and ends on January 6, which is known as Three Kings Day, or Epiphany. It’s the day the Three Wise Men arrived to honor Jesus and is traditionally celebrated with a feast, sometimes called a Twelfth Night party.
When was the "12 Days of Christmas" written?
There’s a reason the lyrics sound a bit dated—it's because they are. The earliest known written version of the "12 Days of Christmas,” which was printed without accompanying music, goes back to 1780 and the English children’s book, Mirth With-out Mischief. However, many scholars believe the poem was French in origin and started out as a game to test memory that revelers played at Twelfth Night parties. If you forgot the words, you’d have to give your opponent a kiss or grant them a favor.
This cumulative verse poem—defined as a poem “where each patterned verse contributes to a longer narrative”—shifted and changed over the centuries. The "12 Days of Christmas” at one time contained lines referring to “bears a-baiting,” “badgers baiting,” “ships a-sailing,” and “very pretty peacock upon a pear tree.” One version listed “four colly birds.” In Old English, colly meant “black as coal,” so the gift was four blackbirds. It wasn’t until 1909, when English composer Frederic Austin added music to the poem, turned “colly” into “calling,” and emphasized “five golden rings” that the carol as we know it was born.
Is there a secret code in the "12 Days of Christmas" lyrics?
Sometime in the 1990s, a rumor spread that the "12 Days of Christmas” contained a secret code hidden within the lyrics. According to this theory (which could explain the peculiar gifts listed in the song), after the Reformation in England, persecuted Catholics taught their children the catechism using the poem’s imagery as symbols relevant to their faith. The partridge in a pear tree is said to represent Jesus; the two turtle doves are supposedly the Old and New Testaments; the three French hens are purportedly the the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, and so on.
It’s an interesting theory, a good bit more romantic and mysterious than the more likely idea that all those birds in the song weren’t so bizarre a present: They were meant to be served for dinner. But according to the myth-busting website Snopes, the hidden code rumor doesn't hold up, with “absolutely no documentation or supporting evidence for this claim whatsoever.”
How much would it cost to buy all those gifts in the "12 Days of Christmas"?
Forget about the usefulness of all the presents in the "12 Days of Christmas.” Ever wonder how much they’re worth? Thanks to the folks at PNC Bank, we know. For the past 35 years, they’ve been releasing the Christmas Price Index, which uses current market rates to calculate the modern day cost of the gifts in the song—and it's a lot. Nowadays, you can expect to pay a whopping $38,993.53 for everything—and the sky-high price of seven swans a-swimming takes up $13,125.00 of the grand total. And spending $10,000 on 10 lords-a-leaping for a Christmas gift? It really must be “true love.”
What are the "12 Days of Christmas" lyrics?
If your memory is foggy, allow us to help. We're listing the 12th day so you can see all the lyrics in the shortest way possible.
On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me:
12 Drummers Drumming
11 Pipers Piping
10 Lords a-Leaping
9 Ladies Dancing
8 Maids a-Milking
7 Swans a-Swimming
6 Geese a-Laying
5 Golden Rings
4 Calling Birds
3 French Hens
2 Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.
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