"Hearst Magazines and Yahoo may earn commission or revenue on some items through the links below."
"The 12 Days of Christmas" is a holiday classic — and while it may not be as catchy as some of your other favorite Christmas carols, ask anyone what their true love gave them on the first day of Christmas, and they'd probably be able to sing right back, "A partridge in a pear tree!" But after hearing the song all season while shopping for gifts and attending holiday parties, you're probably starting to wonder, what do the lyrics of this song actually mean?
Truthfully, not much of the song makes sense from a modern perspective. Why are there so many gifts? What's a "calling bird"? Who wants eight maids-a-milking, and what would you even do with them? Like most old tales, you have to first understand the context of when it was written to truly understand the meaning. Let's take a look at the facts about the origins of the song.
First, what are the 12 days of Christmas?
The twelve days over which the song takes place is a reference to Christianity theology. "The 12 Days of Christmas" historically does not reference the days leading up to Christmas, but rather the 12 days following it, also known as Twelvetide. The period begins with birth of Christ on December 25th, Christmas Day, and ends with the coming of the three wise men on January 6th, also known as the Epiphany or Three Kings Day. The weeks before Christmas are known as Advent, ending on December 24 — hence, advent calendars.
The lyrics to"The 12 Days of Christmas" were originally different.
Of course, the reason many of us know about the 12 days of Christmas is likely not through reading the Bible, but because of the famous Christmas carol. Though some scholars believe that the song is French in origin, the first printed appearance of the song was in the English children's book Mirth With-out Mischief. If you haven't heard of it, that's probably because it was published in 1780. You could ask the person who shelled out $23,750 at a Sotheby's auction for a first edition to borrow their copy, but even so, you may not recognize the lyrics.
In the original lyrics, the "four calling birds" were actually “four colly birds." The term "colly" is Old English slang for birds dark as coal, a.k.a. blackbirds. In other old versions of the song, the partridge we all know and love is replaced with a "very pretty peacock upon a pear tree." If you think that's weird, consider a Scottish version that gifts "an Arabian baboon." It wasn't until 1909 that British composer Frederic Austin penned the version of the lyrics that we are all familiar with today.
The song originated as a game.
Most historians believe that the Christmas carol started out as a "memory-and-forfeit" game in 1800s England. These types of games were played by British school children, and the rules were simple: When it's your turn, you repeat all the previously sung lyrics, and add the next one. If you can't remember a verse, you owe your opponent a "forfeit," which was usually a kiss or piece of candy.
The song doesn't have a hidden biblical meaning.
You may have seen this theory floating around via chain emails and message boards. In a nutshell, the theory claims that during a time when Christians were punished for worshiping openly, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" song was used to secretly pass on the ideology of Christianity. Per this theory, each gift on the list symbolizes a different aspect of the Christian faith:
The Partridge in the Pear Tree is Jesus Christ.
The 2 Turtle Doves are The Old and New Testaments.
The 3 French hens are Faith, Hope and Charity, the theological virtues.
The 4 Calling Birds are the four gospels and/or the four evangelists.
The 5 Golden Rings are the first five books of the Old Testament.
The 6 Geese A-laying are the six days of creation.
The 7 Swans A-swimming are the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments.
The 8 Maids A-milking are the eight beatitudes.
The 9 Ladies Dancing are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit.
The 10 Lords A-leaping are the ten commandments.
The 11 Pipers Piping are the eleven faithful apostles.
The 12 Drummers Drumming are the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed.
But while it is true that the "12 days" reference the days between the birth of Christ and the coming of the Magi, Snopes breaks down the many historical and logistical errors in the "hidden meanings" theory, including the biggest flaw in the claim: If Christians were living in fear of even mentioning the basic tenants of Christianity, how were they able to sing a song that mentions the word "Christmas" in every lyric?
Giving someone all the gifts mentioned would be pretty pricey.
Since 1984, PNC Bank has been tracking the price of giving each gift mention in the song with the PNC Christmas Price Index. The index uses current market rates to calculate how much each gift would cost, on average, for the modern consumer. I hate to break it to you, but giving someone every gift mentioned in the song would cost you a small fortune — around $41,205.58, according to the current Christmas price index. Partly, this is because swans are really expensive ($1,875 each!). But the real reason the final number is so eye-popping is because the gifts are cumulative — you give each previous gift mention with each subsequent gift, which brings your total number of gifts to 364. So, just like Erin learned on The Office, "The 12 Days of Christmas" is much better as a song than an actual gift.
You Might Also Like