Think you know what you’re singing about when you’re out bellowing the 12 days of Christmas? Think again.
No one Knows the Origin of the Song
Most agree that it was first published either as a children’s song or a Christmas carol in the late 18th or mid-19th century.
Maybe it was in 1868 as some scholras determine, but the song shows up even earlier (1780) in a slightly altered form.
Originally a Kids’ Game?
Many say the song actually came to life out of a kids’ memory game, wherein groups of children would take turns singing each lyric around in a circle. The goal was to count all the way up to 12 and back down without stumbling, forgetting a lyric, or getting your tongue twisted up on any of the sinuous bits.
Maybe it’s a Love Song?
Edward Phinney, a professor of classics at the University of Massachusetts: If you think of all the things being presented, they’re all gifts from a lover to a woman. Some of them are rather impossible to give, like eight maids a-milking and nine ladies dancing. All those ladies and dancing and pipers and drums imply this is a wedding.
And Also About Sex
Well, more actually, a wedding consummation. Maids a-milking, lords a-leapin’, geese a-laying, if you know what I mean.
Partridge in a pear tree = Heart shaped pear, and the partridge is a famous aphrodisiac.
Is it a Catechism?
A catechism is a summary or exposition of doctrine, traditionally used in Christian religious teaching from New Testament times to the present. From the 16th to the 19th century, it was a crime being Catholic in Protestant England. Some say that children would sing this song to profess their forbidden faith. Partridge & Pear tree = Jesus Christ; 4 calling birds = four gospels; pipers piping = eleven faithful apostles.
All 12 things it professes to secretly represent—the books of the Bible, the six days of creation, etc.—would have been acceptable to Protestants as well. It also began spreading as a rumor only in the last 25 years.
Unofficial – It’s probably the most Parodied of Xmas songs
Frank Sinatra, Ren and Stimpy, the Chipmunks, Lucile Ball and many many more have had a go at this one.
Four Calling Birds?
Today these are calling birds, but in earlier times people sang about Canaries or Mockingbirds, and even Colly or Collie birds. Four was the constant.
What are the 5 Golden Rings?
Not jewelry, but a reference to the yellowish rings around a pheasant’s neck or to “goldspinks,” an old name for a pretty little bird called the Goldfinch. When you think about that every lyric in the first seven days on the song refers to a certain kind of bird, it makes quite a lot of sense.
Where did the Partridge Come From?
Partridge in a pear tree might be an Anglicization of what would have begun as a French word for partridge: perdrix.
The Christmas Bird Count
Every December, a group of birders, amateur and otherwise, venture out in the frigid countryside and count birds in the weeks surrounding Christmas. This tradition began in 1900, when Frank Chapman convinced a handful of people to stop hunting birds on Christmas, and to start counting them instead.
A group of economists at PNC Wealth Management have figured out how much it would cost to actually buy all the things on the “Twelve Days of Christmas” list. Today it would cost more than $100,000, compared to 1990, when it was slightly more than $15,000.