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The 12 Days of Christmas: Decoding a Classic Christmas Carol


Everyone knows the classic Christmas Carol ‘The 12 days of Christmas’ by heart. But have you ever wondered where this seasonal song comes from?

It’s a common misconception that the ‘official’ start of the festive season happens when you open the first door on your advent calendar. In reality, December 25 – i.e.  Christmas Day is actually the first day of Christmas.

Or at least, the first of the real 12 days of Christmas, which the song refers to.  In Christian theology, these 12 days mark the period between the birth of Baby Jesus (December 25) and the arrival of the three wise men (January 6). This is also why January 6 is also the most important day for giving and receiving gifts for many cultures, commemorating the gifts the three wise men brought to Bethlehem.

A True Christmas Classic

The song itself has changed a number of times over the years, though has always had the same basic structure and melody.

Today, the most popular version of the song starts with:

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

After which, an additional gift is added for each of the 12 days of Christmas, which are subsequently recited in order as follows:

  • Day 2: two turtle doves
  • Day 3: three French hens
  • Day 4: four calling birds
  • Day 5: five gold rings
  • Day 6: six geese a-laying
  • Day 7: seven swans a-swimming
  • Day 8: eight maids a-milking
  • Day 9: nine ladies dancing
  • Day 10: 10 lords a-leaping
  • Day 11: 11 pipers piping
  • Day 12: 12 drummers drumming

Though the exact origins of the song are unclear, an early version was printed in a children's book called Mirth With-out Mischief from all the way back in 1780.  There are some who believe that the original version of the song was written in France, where it was sung with family and friends as something of a challenge to recall all of the lyrics correctly.

Christianity in Code

One of the most popular theories regarding the origins of the song suggests that each of the 12 gifts is actually a coded reference to Christianity.

2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments,
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists,
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation,
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven sacraments and so on.

In any case, the list of gifts is perhaps best not taken literally. A recent study carried out by the PNC song Financial Services Group in the United States calculated that if you were to buy the entire list of gifts in 2019, you’d be looking at a total cost of around $40,000. That is, assuming you could find swans for sale in the first place, let alone lords, pipers or drummers!

Feeling Festive…

In any case, the exact origins of Christmas Carols like these aren’t as important as the way they make us feel. When it comes to feeling festive, there’s nothing like a good old-fashioned Christmas song to set the mood.

If you’re teaching your kids about Christmas Carols, why not have Santa Claus himself drop them a line with a few festive facts? Organise a personalised letter or video message directly from the North Pole to make your kids’ favourite festive classics even more magical for Christmas 2019!

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