What Are the Twelve Days of Christmas?

(Last Updated On: December 5, 2019)
What Are the Twelve Days of Christmas?

This marks the time of year where you start hearing Christmas songs at just about every junction possible, whether it’s on the radio, in the mall, in the grocery store, or even at a friend’s home. By the time the season ends, there are probably a few songs you will know by heart (whether you like it or not) and one of the most common ones is The Twelve Days of Christmas. A lot of children may grow up singing this song (despite never having seen a turtle dove or a partridge face to face), but it’s easy to wonder how some of these stranger holiday traditions came to be. Here’s a closer look at what the Twelve Days of Christmas actually means.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

12 Days of Christmas

The original Twelve Days of Christmas, also known as Twelvetide, was a religious concept, rooted in Christian tradition during the Middle Ages. In essence, it referred to the period between December 25th (Christmas Day) and the evening of January 5th, also known as the 12th Night. Each of the days would be dedicated to a different saint (sometimes varying based on where worship was taking place) and Twelfth Night would be a massive celebration.

Generally, in medieval times, Twelfth Night would mark the end of winter, and a lot of the activities would be themed around this. Night cake, a rich cake made with eggs, butter, nuts, and spices, would be eaten, with a single bean or pea in the cake. Whoever found it would be hailed Lord or Lady of Misrule for the night. 

Dating back to Roman celebrations, the person would be dressed as a king or queen and lead the celebrations. This would include games and music, up until the first Monday after the feast. Known as Plough Monday, this would mark when the farming work started again.

So, how does all this translate into the famous Christmas song? Well, technically, it wasn’t a song at first. The original The Twelve Days of Christmas dates back to 1780, when it was published in the book Mirth Without Mischief. The original design for it was “cumulative verse.” This was essentially a poem/chant that was designed not to be set to music. If you’ve heard of the rhyme “There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly” it would be similar to that. 

However, the true history and purpose of it are a bit murky. In some areas, historians have come together to find a likely purpose, others, not so much. For example, while Mirth Without Mischief may be the first published recording of the song, most historians think that this isn’t the original version, and that it may be French in origin. Also, since it wasn’t designed to be set to music, some think it was more of a memory game. People would have to test each other on remembering the words, and if they missed one, they would owe a kiss or some other type of favor.

Is There A Hidden Meaning?

One of the more common pieces of trivia you may hear about The Twelve Days of Christmas is that it has a hidden religious meaning. Certainly, if you consider the original 12 Days, this makes sense on paper. The hidden meaning that people believe exists is that the song was created at a time when Catholics were being persecuted in Protestant England. Under this theory, the different “gifts” represent the following concepts:

  • A Partridge in a Pear Tree: Jesus Christ
  • Two Turtle Doves: the Old and New Testaments
  • Three French Hens: faith, hope and charity
  • Four Calling Birds: the Four Gospels, or the Four Evangelists, depending on your interpretation
  • Five Golden Rings: The first five books of the Old Testament
  • Six Geese A-laying: Six days of creation
  • Seven Swans A-swimming: The seven sacraments
  • Eight Maids A-milking: The eight beatitudes
  • Nine Ladies Dancing: nine fruits of the Holy Spirit
  • Ten Lords A-leaping: the Ten Commandments
  • Eleven Pipers Piping: Eleven apostles (minus the traitor Judas)
  • Twelve Drummers Drumming: twelve points of doctrine that appear in the Apostle’s Creed

This myth first started circulating in the 1990s, but falls apart under scrutiny. Not only are the links between the gifts and religious concepts tenuous, but a persecuted group would not be able to celebrate Christmas, a holiday with religious connotations, during that era. Sometimes, the truth is interesting, but not nearly as exciting.

Be sure to read this article for the true story behind another Christmas tradition: gingerbread houses.