The Twelve Days of Christmas (song)

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"The Twelve Days of Christmas"
Roud No. 68
XRF 12days.jpg
Music by Traditional with additions by Frederic Austin
Published c. 1780
Language English; may be French in origin
Form Cumulative song

"The Twelve Days of Christmas" is an English Christmas carol that enumerates in the manner of a cumulative song a series of increasingly grand gifts given on each of the twelve days of Christmas. The song, first published in England in 1780 without music as a chant or rhyme, is thought to be French in origin.[1] "The Twelve Days of Christmas" has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 68. The tunes of collected versions vary. The standard tune now associated with it is derived from a 1909 arrangement of a traditional folk melody by English composer Frederic Austin, who first introduced the now familiar prolongation of the verse "five gold rings".

Origin[edit]

The twelve days in the song are the twelve days starting with Christmas Day, or in some traditions, the day after Christmas (December 26) (Boxing Day or St. Stephen's Day, as being the feast day of St. Stephen Protomartyr), to the day before Epiphany, or the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6, or the Twelfth Day). Twelfth Night is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "the evening of the fifth of January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of the Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking."[2]

The best known English version was first printed in English in 1780 in a little book intended for children, Mirth without Mischief, as a Twelfth Night "memories-and-forfeits" game, in which a leader recited a verse, each of the players repeated the verse, the leader added another verse, and so on until one of the players made a mistake, with the player who erred having to pay a penalty, such as offering up a kiss or a sweet.[3] One hundred years later, Lady Gomme, a collector of folktales and rhymes, described how it used to be played every Twelfth Day night before eating mince pies and twelfth cake.[1]

"Twelve days of Christmas" was adapted from similar New Years' or spring French carols, of which at least three are known, all featuring a partridge, perdriz or perdriole, as the first gift. The pear tree appears in only the English version, but this could also indicate a French origin. According to Iona and Peter Opie, the red-legged (or French) partridge perches in trees more frequently than the native common (or grey) partridge and was not successfully introduced into England until about 1770.[1] Cecil Sharp observed that "from the constancy in English, French, and Languedoc versions of the 'merry little partridge,' I suspect that 'pear-tree' is really perdrix (Old French pertriz) carried into England"; and "juniper tree" in some English versions may have been "joli perdrix," [pretty partridge]. Sharp also suggests the adjective "French" in "three French hens", probably simply means "foreign".[4][5]

In the northern counties of England, the song was often called the "Ten Days of Christmas", as there were only ten gifts. It was also known in Somerset, Dorsetshire, and elsewhere in England. The kinds of gifts vary in a number of the versions, some of them becoming alliterative tongue-twisters.[6] "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was also widely popular in the United States and Canada. It is mentioned in the section on "Chain Songs" in Stith Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (Indiana University Studies, Vol. 5, 1935), p. 416.

The French folksong "La Perdriole" ("The Partridge") is a cumulative song with the same kind of lyrics, a similar (but slightly different) melody, but it takes place every month of the year rather than over the last twelve days before Christmas, which could explain the origin of the number of days in the English version.[7][better source needed]

Lyrics[edit]

Title page from the first known publication of "The 12 days of Christmas" in 1780

"The 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.

There are many variations in the lyrics; they are discussed below. The lyrics given here are from Austin's 1909 publication that first established the current form of the carol.[8] The first three verses run, in full, as follows:

 
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,[9]
Two Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.

Subsequent verses follow the same pattern, each adding one new gift and repeating all the earlier gifts, so that each verse is one line longer than its predecessor:

4 Calling Birds
5 Gold Rings
6 Geese-a-Laying
7 Swans-a-Swimming
8 Maids-a-Milking
9 Ladies Dancing
10 Lords-a-Leaping
11 Pipers Piping
12 Drummers Drumming

Variations[edit]

The earliest known version of the lyrics was published under the title The Twelve Days of Christmas sung at King Pepin's Ball, as part of a 1780 children's book, Mirth without Mischief.[10] Subsequent versions have shown considerable variation:

  • In the earliest versions, the word "On" is not present at the beginning of each verse—for example, the first verse begins simply "The first day of Christmas". "On" was added in Austin's 1909 version, and became very popular thereafter.
  • In the early versions "my true love sent" me the gifts. However, a 20th-century variant has "my true love gave to me"; this wording has become particularly common in North America.[11]
  • The 1780 version has "four colly birds" -- "colly" being a regional English expression for "black".[12] This wording must have been opaque to many even in the 19th century: "canary birds", "colour'd birds", "curley birds", and "corley birds" are found in its place. Frederic Austin's 1909 version, which introduced the now-standard melody, also altered the fourth day's gift to four calling birds, and this variant has become the most popular, although "colly" is still found.
  • The "five gold rings" may become "five golden rings", especially in North America.[11] In the standard melody, this change enables singers to fit one syllable per musical note.[13]
  • The gifts associated with the final four days are often reordered. For example, the pipers may be on the ninth day rather than the eleventh[12]
Variation in the lyrics of "The Twelve Days of Christmas", from different sources
Source Giver 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Mirth without Mischief, 1780[10] My true love sent to me Partridge in a pear-tree Turtle doves French hens Colly birds Gold rings Geese a laying Swans a swimming Maids a milking Drummers drumming Pipers piping Ladies dancing Lords a leaping
Halliwell, 1842[14] My mother sent to me Partridge in a pear-tree Turtle doves French hens Canary birds Gold rings Geese a laying Swans a swimming Ladies dancing Lords a leaping Ships a sailing Ladies spinning Bells ringing
Halliwell, 1853[15] My true love sent to me Partridge in a pear tree Turtle doves French hens Colly birds Gold rings Geese a laying Swans a swimming Maids a milking Drummers drumming Pipers piping Ladies dancing Lords a leaping
Salmon, 1855[16] My true love sent to me Partridge upon a pear-tree Turtle-doves French hens Collie birds Gold rings Geese a-laying Swans a-swimming Maids a-milking Drummers drumming Pipers piping Ladies dancing Lords a-leaping
Cliftonian, 1867[17] My true-love sent to me Partridge in a pear-tree Turtle-doves French hens Colley birds Gold rings Ducks a-laying Swans swimming Hares a-running Ladies dancing Lords a-leaping Badgers baiting Bells a-ringing
Clark, 1875[18] My true love sent to me Partridge in a pear tree Turtle doves French hens Colour'd birds Gold rings Geese laying Swans swimming Maids milking Drummers drumming Pipers piping Ladies dancing Lords leaping
Henderson, 1879[19] My true love sent to me Partridge upon a pear tree Turtle doves French hens Curley birds Gold rings Geese laying Swans swimming Maids milking Drummers drumming Pipers piping
Stokoe, 1888[20] My true love sent to me Partridge on a pear tree Turtle doves French hens Colly birds Gold rings Geese a-laying Swans a-swimming Maids a-milking Drummers drumming Pipers piping Ladies dancing Lords a leaping
Scott, 1892[21] My true love brought to me Very pretty peacock upon a pear tree Turtle-doves French hens Corley birds Gold rings Geese a-laying Swans a-swimming Maids a-milking Pipers playing Drummers drumming Lads a-louping Ladies dancing
Cole, 1900[22] My true love sent to me Parteridge upon a pear tree Turtle doves French hens Colly birds Gold rings Geese a laying Squabs a swimming Hounds a running Bears a beating Cocks a crowing Lords a leaping Ladies a dancing
Shaw, 1905[23] My true Love sent to me Goldie ring, and the part of a June apple tree Turtle doves, and the part of a mistletoe bough French hens Colley birds Goldie rings Geese a-laying Swans a-swimming Boys a-singing Ladies dancing Asses racing Bulls a-beating Bells a-ringing
Austin, 1909[8] My true love sent to me Partridge in a Pear Tree Turtle Doves French Hens Calling Birds Gold Rings Geese a-laying Swans a-swimming Maids a-milking Ladies dancing Lords a-leaping Pipers piping Drummers drummming
Swortzell, 1966[11] My true love gave to me Partridge in a pear tree Turtle doves French hens Collie birds Golden rings Geese a-laying Swans a-swimming Maids a-milking Pipers piping Drummers drumming Lords a-leaping Ladies dancing

Australia[edit]

In Australia, the most common version is the traditional English version. However, a number of alternative versions have been created, all of which replace the traditional gifts with native Australian animals.[24]

Scotland[edit]

In Scotland, early in the 19th century, the recitation began: "The king sent his lady on the first Yule day, | A popingo-aye [parrot]; | Wha learns my carol and carries it away?" The succeeding gifts were two partridges, three plovers, a goose that was grey, three starlings, three goldspinks, a bull that was brown, three ducks a-merry laying, three swans a-merry swimming, an Arabian baboon, three hinds a-merry hunting, three maids a-merry dancing, three stalks o' merry corn.[1]

Faroe Islands[edit]

One of the two "Twelve Days of Christmas" Faroe stamps

In the Faroe Islands, there is a comparable counting Christmas song. The gifts include: one feather, two geese, three sides of meat, four sheep, five cows, six oxen, seven dishes, eight ponies, nine banners, ten barrels, eleven goats, twelve men, thirteen hides, fourteen rounds of cheese and fifteen deer.[25] These were illustrated in 1994 by local cartoonist Óli Petersen (born 1936) on a series of two stamps issued by the Faroese Philatelic Office.[26]

Music[edit]

The first appearance of the "Five Gold Rings" motif, from Austin's original 1909 arrangement of "The Twelve Days of Christmas". The change of meter between 3/4 and 4/4 is visible

The now-standard melody for the carol was published in 1909 by Novello & Co.. English composer Frederic Austin fitted the words to a traditional melody, to which he added his own two-bar motif for "Five gold rings".[27][28][29] Many of the decisions Austin made with regard to the lyrics subsequently became widespread:

  • The initial "on" at the beginning of each verse.
  • The use of "calling birds", rather than "colly birds", on the fourth day.
  • The ordering of the final four verses.

The time signature of this song is not constant, unlike most popular music. This irregular meter perhaps speaks for the song's folk origin. The introductory lines, such as "On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me", are made up of two 4/4 bars, while most of the lines naming gifts receive one 3/4 bar per gift with the exception of "Five gold(en) rings," which receives two 4/4 bars, "Two turtle doves" getting a 4/4 bar with "And a" on its fourth beat and "Partridge in a pear tree" getting two 4/4 bars 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. The successive bars of three for the gifts surrounded by bars of four give the song its hallmark "hurried" quality.

The second to fourth verses' melody is different from that of the fifth to twelfth verses. Before the fifth verse (when "five gold(en) rings" is first sung), the melody, using solfege, is "sol re mi fa re" for the fourth to second items, and this same melody is thereafter sung for the twelfth to sixth items. However, the melody for "four colly birds, three French hens, two turtle doves" changes from this point, differing from the way these lines were sung in the opening four verses.

Flourish on the words "Five Gold Rings" in the final verse of Austin's 1909 arrangement of "The Twelve Days of Christmas"

In the final verse, Austin inserted a flourish on the words "Five Gold Rings". This has not been copied by later versions, which simply repeat the melody from the earlier verses.


Earlier versions[edit]

This is one of many alternative melodies to "The Twelve Days" published in the nineteenth centry. It was "collected by the late Mr. John Bell, of Gateshead, about eighty years ago" [i.e. around 1808][20] About this sound Play 

In the 19th century, most sources for the lyrics do not include music, and those that do often include music different from what has become the standard melody. Cecil Sharp's Folk Songs from Somerset (1905) contains two different melodies for the song, both distinct from the now-standard melody.[23]

Meaning[edit]

According to The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, "Suggestions have been made that the gifts have significance, as representing the food or sport for each month of the year. Importance [certainly has] long been attached to the Twelve Days, when, for instance, the weather on each day was carefully observed to see what it would be in the corresponding month of the coming year. Nevertheless, whatever the ultimate origin of the chant, it seems probable [that] the lines that survive today both in England and France are merely an irreligious travesty."[1]

In 1979, a Canadian hymnologist, Hugh D. McKellar, published an article, "How to Decode the Twelve Days of Christmas", claiming that "The Twelve Days of Christmas" lyrics were intended as a catechism song to help young Catholics learn their faith, at a time when practising Catholicism was criminalized in England (1558 until 1829). McKellar offered no evidence for his claim and subsequently admitted that the purported associations were his own invention.[30] The idea was further popularized by a Catholic priest, Fr. Hal Stockert, in an article he wrote in 1982 and posted online in 1995,[31][32] In 1987 and 1992, Fr. James Gilhooley, chaplain of Mount Saint Mary College of Newburgh, New York, repeated these claims.[33][34] None of the enumerated items would distinguish Catholics from Protestants, and so would hardly need to be secretly encoded.[3]

Illustration of "five gold rings", from the first known publication of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (1780)

William S. and Ceil Baring-Gould suggest that the presents sent on the first seven days were all birds—-the "Five gold rings" were not actually gold rings, but refer to the five golden rings of the ringed pheasant.[35] Others suggest the gold rings refer to "five goldspinks"—a goldspink being an old name for a Goldfinch;[36] or even canaries.[37] However, the 1780 publication includes an illustration that clearly depicts the "five gold rings" as being jewelry.[10]

Christmas Price Index[edit]

Main article: Christmas Price Index

Since 1984, the cumulative costs of the items mentioned in the song have been used as a tongue-in-cheek economic indicator. Assuming the gifts are repeated in full in each round of the song, then a total of 364 items are delivered by the twelfth day.[38] This custom began with and is maintained by PNC Bank.[39][40] Two pricing charts are created, referred to as the Christmas Price Index and The True Cost of Christmas. The former is an index of the current costs of one set of each of the gifts given by the True Love to the singer of the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas". The latter is the cumulative cost of all the gifts with the repetitions listed in the song. The people mentioned in the song are hired, not purchased. The total costs of all goods and services for the 2013 Christmas Price Index is US$27,393.18.[41] The original 1984 cost was $12,623.10. It has been criticized for not accurately reflecting the true cost of the gifts featured in the Christmas carol.[42]

In popular culture[edit]

Members of the Navy Sea Chanters sing their comedy version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" on Dec. 4, 2009, at the Wallace Theater, Ft. Belvoir, Va.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e P. Opie and I. Opie (eds), The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951), ISBN 0-19-869111-4, pp. 122–23.
  2. ^ Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1993 edition.
  3. ^ a b "The song "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was created as a coded reference". Snopes.com. 2008-12-15. Retrieved 2011-12-10. 
  4. ^ Cecil J. Sharp, A. G. Gilchrist and Lucy E. Broadwood, “Forfeit Songs; Cumulative Songs; Songs of Marvels and of Magical Animals,” Journal of the Folk-Song Society, Vol. 5, No. 20 (November 1916), pp. 280.
  5. ^ Another suggestion is that an old English drinking song may have furnished the idea for the first gift. William B. Sandys refers to it as a "convivial glee introduced a few years since, 'A Pie [i.e., a magpie] sat on a Pear Tree,' where one drinks while the others sing," William Sandys, Festive Songs'—-16th and I7th Centuries (Percy Society Publications, Vol. 23, 1847), p. 74. The image of the bird in the pear tree also appears in lines from a children's counting rhyme an old Mother Goose.
    A pye sate on a pear tree, Heigh O!
    Once so merrily hopp'd she; Heigh O!
    Twice so merrily, etc.
    Thrice so, etc.
    See Leah Rachel Clara Yoffie, "Songs of the 'Twelve Numbers' and the Hebrew Chant of 'Echod mi Yodea'", The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 62, No. 246 (October - December 1949), p. 400.
  6. ^ Yoffee, "Songs of the Twelve Numbers", 1949, p. 400.
  7. ^ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJ9K4KYR9Sk
  8. ^ a b Austin (1909)
  9. ^ "h2g2 - Three French Hens - A212248". BBC. Retrieved 2011-12-05. 
  10. ^ a b c Anonymous (1780). Mirth without Mischief. London: Printed by J. Davenport, George's Court, for C. Sheppard, no. 8, Aylesbury Street, Clerkenwell. pp. 5–16. 
  11. ^ a b c For example, Swortzell, Lowell (1966). A Partridge in a Pear Tree: A Comedy in One Act. New York: Samuel French. p. 20. ISBN 0573663114. 
  12. ^ a b Bible Church of God, Chicago (Hyde Park), Illinois: "The Twelve Days of Christmas"; annotations reprinted from 4000 Years of Christmas by Earl W. Count (New York: Henry Schuman, 1948). Accessed 2007-12-21; 2008-12-25Template:DEAD LINK
  13. ^ "Gold keeps the 'Twelve Days of Christmas' cost a-leaping". Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Retrieved 2009-12-08. 
  14. ^ Halliwell, James Orchard (1842). The Nursery Rhymes of England. London: Richards. pp. 127–128. 
  15. ^ Halliwell, James Orchard (1853). The Nursery Rhymes of England (Fifth ed.). London: John Russell Smith. pp. 184–188. 
  16. ^ Salmon, Robert S. (1855). Notes and Queries, vol. xii (December 1855). London: George Bell. pp. 506–507. 
  17. ^ "An Antiquarian" (1867). The Cliftonian (December 1867). Clifton, Bristol: J. Baker. pp. 145–146. 
  18. ^ Clark, Georgiana C. (1875?). Jolly Games for Happy HOmes. London: Dean & Son. pp. 238–242. 
  19. ^ Henderson, William (1879). Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders. London: Satchell, Peyton and Co. p. 71. 
  20. ^ a b Stokoe, John (1888). The Monthly Chronicle of North-country Lore and Legend (issue of January 1888). Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Walter Scott. pp. 41–42. 
  21. ^ Minto (ed.), W. (1892). Autobiographical Notes on the Life of William Bell Scott, vol. i. New York: Harper. pp. 186–187. 
  22. ^ Cole, Pamela McArthur (1900). The Journal of American Folk-Lore, vol. xiii, (issue of July-September 1900). Boston: Houghton Mifflin. pp. 229–230. 
  23. ^ a b Sharp, Cecil J. (1905). Folk Songs from Somerset. London: Simpkin. 
  24. ^ 12 Days of Christmas Aussie Style. Retrieved on 2008-12-11[unreliable source?]
  25. ^ Another counting song
  26. ^ Postverk Føroya - Philatelic Office
  27. ^ The New Oxford Book of Carols
  28. ^ "A Christmas Carol Treasury". The Hymns and Carols Of Christmas. Retrieved 2011-12-05. 
  29. ^ "National Library Of Australia". Catalogue.nla.gov.au. Retrieved 2011-12-05. 
  30. ^ McKellar, High D. (October 1994). "The Twelve Days of Christmas". The Hymn 45,4. "In any case, really evocative symbols do not allow of [sic] definitive explication, exhausting all possibilities. I can at most report what this song's symbols have suggested to me in the course of four decades, hoping thereby to start you on your own quest." 
  31. ^ Emery, David (2011-11-11). "The Twelve Days of Christmas". About.com. Retrieved 2013-11-02. 
  32. ^ Richert, Scott (2013-07-13). "What Are the Twelve Days of Christmas? Myths and Reality". About.com. Retrieved 2013-11-02. "Despite Father Stockert's own acknowledgment of his mistake, years later Catholics in the United States (in particular) continue to spread this urban legend every Christmas season." 
  33. ^ Gilhooley, (Rev.) James (Dec 28, 1987). "Letter to the Editor: True Love Revealed". nytimes.com. Retrieved 2013-12-23. 
  34. ^ Fr. James Gilhooley, "Those Wily Jesuits: If you think 'The Twelve Days of Christmas'is just a song, think again," Our Sunday Visitor, v. 81, no. 34 (20 December 1992), p. 23.
  35. ^ W. S. Baring-Gould and C. Baring-Gould, The Annotated Mother Goose (Bramhall House, [1958] 1962), ISBN 0-517-02959-6, p. 197.
  36. ^ Aled Jones, Songs of Praise, BBC, 26 December 2010.
  37. ^ There is a version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" that is still sung in Sussex in which the four calling birds are replaced by canaries. See Pape, Gordon, and Deborah Kerbel. Quizmas Carols: Family Trivia Fun with Classic Christmas Songs. New York: A Plume Book, October 2007. ISBN 978-0-452-28875-1
  38. ^ The 12 Days of Christmas Eddie's Math and Calculator. Accessed December 2013
  39. ^ Spinner, Jackie (2007-12-20). "''Washington Post''". Washingtonpost.com. Retrieved 2011-12-05. 
  40. ^ Olson, Elizabeth (2003-12-25). "''The". New York Times. Retrieved 2011-12-05. 
  41. ^ "PNC Christmas Price Index: Bah, Humbug! PNC Christmas Price Index Surges 7.7 Percent In 2013; Prices Would Cause Ebenezer Scrooge To Cringe". PNC Financial Services. 2013-12-02. Retrieved 2013-12-16. 
  42. ^ "THE 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS - A LESSON IN HOW A COMPLEX APPRAISAL CAN GO ASTRAY". Fulcrum.com. Retrieved 2011-12-14. 
  43. ^ Liner notes from Allan Sherman: My Son, The Box (2005)
  44. ^ "Allan Sherman Discography". Povonline.com. 1924-11-30. Retrieved 2011-12-05. 
  45. ^ "Sinatra Family Twelve Days Of Christmas". Caroling Corner. Retrieved 2011-12-05. 
  46. ^ John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together (1979). Retrieved 2009-01-24.
  47. ^ "A Pukeko in a Ponga Tree". Folksong.org.nz. 2000-12-01. Retrieved 2011-12-05. 
  48. ^ "A Pukeko in a Ponga Tree". Maori-in-Oz. Retrieved 2011-12-05. 
  49. ^ The Mad Music Archive. Retrieved 2008-12-25.
  50. ^ The Twelve Days of Christmas (1993) (TV)
  51. ^ CMT.com: Shows: The 12 Days of Redneck Christmas. Retrieved 2008-12-25.

Bibliography[edit]

  • Austin, Frederic, (arr.) The Twelve Days of Christmas (Traditional Song), London: Novello, 1909.
  • Gomme, Alice Bertha. "The Twelve Days of Christmas". The Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and Ireland, Vol. II. London: Strand, 1898, pp. 215–32.
  • Eckenstein, Lina. Comparative Studies in Nursery Rhymes. Chapter XII, “Chants of Numbers” (London: Duckworth, 1906), pp. 61–65.
  • Sharp, Cecil J., A. G. Gilchrist and Lucy E. Broadwood. “Forfeit Songs; Cumulative Songs; Songs of Marvels and of Magical Animals”. Journal of the Folk-Song Society, Vol. 5, No. 20 (November 1916), pp. 277–296.
  • Yoffie, Leah Rachel Clara. "'Songs of the 'Twelve Numbers' and the Hebrew Chant of 'Echod mi Yodea'". The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 62, No. 246 (October - December 1949). “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. Pp. 399–401.
  • Opie, Peter and Iona, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951, pp. 122–230, ISBN 0-19-869111-4.

External links[edit]