Its origins trace back farther than the famous holiday carol.

By Shelby Slaughter
December 13, 2019
Addie Juell

The twelve days of Christmas, described in so animated a fashion by the carol of the same name, mark the longest holiday in the Christian calendar, between Christmas Day and the Epiphany (January 6), when the three wise men are believed to have arrived in Bethlehem to pay their respects to the baby Jesus. During the many centuries in which only religious holidays were celebrated, a festival that went on for nearly two weeks was bound to be marked by a good deal of secular fun.

At the time this song was gaining in popularity, giving a present for each day of Christmas was not uncommon among the wealthiest people. The poor could not afford such extravagance, but music is free, and "The Twelve Days of Christmas" must have fired the imagination to embrace the bounty in the song even when in reality far fewer gifts were likely to be given or received.

The song's origins, like those of many early carols, are fuzzy but not altogether unknown. "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was first published in England in 1780 but is almost certainly much older. Enumerating one thing and another to music was typical of popular sixteenth century counting songs, used for teaching children their arithmetic in an atmosphere of play. But this song's sophisticated lyrics, clever repetitions, and high-quality melody combine to set it apart from all the others. The happy tune and singsong verses repeat in reverse as the carol rises and falls gracefully to its conclusion at the very place where it began. What textual evidence does exist suggests that the song originated in France—the partridge was introduced as a species to England from France in the late 1770s, long after music scholars believe the song was written, and there are three known versions of the carol in French.

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Yet, despite the song's likely provenance and its sometimes silly imagery (who gives his love a goose, let alone six?), the lyrics of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" are believed by some to have been written as an allegory by persecuted Roman Catholics in England after the establishment of the Anglican church, when overt demonstrations of the older faith were heavily curtailed by the Protestant rulers. This song, the allegory proponents say, was written as a carefully crafted mnemonic device to embody symbols of the Christian faith. Mnemonic emblems—images that are contrived in order to assist memory—were often exaggerated and somewhat quirky so they would be easy to recall. So, the partridge in the pear tree, for example, represents Jesus, while the six geese a-laying correspond to the six days of the creation, the ten lords a-leaping stand in for the Ten Commandments, and so on. There is stronger evidence, however, to suggest a secular carol whose glorious celebration of presents and revelry crossed the Channel from France and by the mid-nineteenth century developed into a very popular party game in England for Twelve Days celebrations. At such a party, each child would sing the verses in turn, with another day added by each successive singer. A forgotten verse meant a penalty must be paid—a kiss, for example.

By the time the carol became popular on American shores in the mid-twentieth century, it was no longer a game song, although since then the playfulness of its lyrics has made many children happy to face the challenge of remembering every verse. It is in this modern, untethered form that we grab hold of the carol for the sake of inspiration. Among the birds, rings, milkmaids, and dancers can be found wonderful ideas for gifts, decorations, and menus. We hope they will excite your imagination and set you on course for a delightful holiday. But before you begin creating, let us solve one more small mystery: If you received all those gifts over twelve days, just how many would you have? For the record, they add up to 364.

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