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Twelve Days of Christmas
Christmas Traditions
 

The Twelve Days of Christmas and the associated evenings of those twelve days (Twelve-tide), are the festive days from the evening after Christmas day (December 25) through Epiphany on (January 6). December 26 (St. Stephen's Day) is the first day of Christmas, then December 27 is the second day of Christmas, and so on until January 6 which is the 12th day of Christmas. Christmas day, December 25, is therefore not one of the twelve days of Christmas. The associated evenings of the twelve days begin on the evening before the specified day. Thus, the first-night is December 25–26, and twelfth-night is January 5–6.

"The Twelve Days of Christmas" is also the title of a popular English Christmas carol which enumerates a series of grandiose gifts given on each day of the festival.

The Festival

These are the twelve days beginning on night of Christmas (December 25) and ending on the day of 6th January as Epiphany begins on (January 6). In the Middle Ages this period was one of continuous feasting and merrymaking, which climaxed on Twelfth Night, the traditional end of the Christmas season.

During the twelve days of Christmas, traditional roles were often relaxed, masters waited on their servants, men were allowed to dress as women, and women as men. Often a Lord of Misrule was chosen to lead the Christmas revels. Some of these traditions were adapted from older, pagan customs, including the Roman Saturnalia. Some also have an echo in modern day pantomime where traditionally authority is mocked and the principal male lead is played by a woman, while the leading older female character, or 'Dame' is played by a man.

Some people give gifts, feast and otherwise celebrate on each of the twelve days rather than just on one day at Christmas.

The Christmas Carol

The date of the song's first performance is not known, though it was used in European and Scandinavian traditions as early as the 16th century.

Structure and lyrics

"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.

The first verse runs:

On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
A partridge in a pear tree.

The second verse:

On the second day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
Two turtle doves
and a partridge in a pear tree.

and so on. The last verse is:

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 gold rings;
four calling birds,
three French hens,
two turtle doves
and a partridge in a pear tree.

The time signature of this song is not constant, unlike most popular music. The introductory lines, such as "On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me," are made up of two 4/4 bars, while most of the lines naming off gifts receive one 3/4 bar per gift with the exception of "Five golden rings," which receives two 4/4 bars, "Two turtle doves" getting a 4/4 bar with "And a" on its 4th beat and "Partridge in a pear tree" getting an entire 4/4 bar 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.

There are many variations of this song in which the objects are arranged in a different order (for example - twelve lords a-leaping, eleven ladies dancing, ten pipers piping, nine drummers drumming). There are also many parodies of this song, or modernized versions.

One way to interpret the lyrics of this song is that on each new day, all the gifts are given. This makes the total number of gifts given (counting 12 partridges, 22 turtle doves...) equal to 364, one fewer than the number of days in a year. There are 376 gifts if you count the pear tree as a separate gift from the partridge that resides in it. Of the 364 total items, 184 of them are birds.

Symbolic Interpretation

Some Christians arbitrarily assign symbolism to the gifts in the song. One of the most common versions of these assigned meanings is:

  • The 'partridge in a pear tree' is Jesus (see Luke 13:34)
  • The 'two turtle doves' are the Old and New Testaments
  • The 'three French hens' are the three virtues, faith, hope, and love, or, alternatively, a symbol of the holy Trinity.
  • The 'four calling birds' are the Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; or their Gospels
  • 'Five gold rings' are the first five books of the Bible, or the Pentateuch
  • 'Six geese a-laying' refer to the six days of the Creation
  • 'Seven swans a-swimming' are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit
  • 'Eight maids a-milking' are the eight Beatitudes
  • 'Nine ladies dancing' are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit
  • 'Ten lords a-leaping' are the Ten Commandments
  • 'Eleven pipers piping' are the eleven faithful Apostles
  • 'Twelve drummers drumming' are the twelve doctrines in the Apostles' Creed

This interpretation is usually taught with a story that English Catholics, suffering persecution in the 16th century, wrote the song with these hidden meanings.

However, this ignores the fact that 16th century English Catholics were being persecuted by people who were also Christians, and none of the doctrines supposedly taught by the song were points of controversy. The urban legend debunking site Snopes.com argues that "[t]here is no substantive evidence to demonstrate that the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was created or used as a secret means of preserving tenets of the Catholic faith, or that this claim is anything but a fanciful modern day speculation..."

Standard Variations

Sometimes "gave to me" is used instead of "sent to me"; also "five golden rings" is sometimes "five gold rings". Some argue that "gold" is correct and that "golden" is not. But because "gold" requires stretching into two syllables, the word "golden" seems to fit better. Additionally, some interpreters of the song argue that the five rings refer to coloring around the neck of birds such as pheasants, not jewelry.

The line four calling birds is an Americanization of the traditional English wording four colly birds, and in some places, such as Australia, the variation calling is supplanting the original. Colly is a dialect word meaning black and refers to the European blackbird Turdus merula.

The line four calling birds in some versions is four coiled birds.

The line nine ladies dancing in some versions is nine ladies waiting.

As well, the last four verses are sometimes interchanged, so that one version of the song may have nine pipers, ten drummers, eleven ladies, twelve lords, or any other combination.

Straight versions of The Twelve Days of Christmas has been covered by many popular modern artists and groups.

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