Jolly thoughts on ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’

I haven’t been able to get the silly song out of my head, and last year made a nuisance of myself texting relatives, especially my granddaughter Katie (stage name), every day with stupid comments like “Don’t worry, the piping pipers are only rented, you don’t have to keep them,” and “Where are you going to put all these birds?”

As I sent my last text, much to Katie’s relief, I started thinking seriously about that illogical song. Where did it come from? What does it mean? Does it have a deeper, symbolic meaning like some of the children’s nursery rhymes? We know that the 12 days from Christmas to Epiphany have been celebrated for over 1,000 years in Europe, and in our America, too … usually when party-people want an excuse to continue celebrating.

The 12 days in the song are the 12 days starting Christmas Day, or in some traditions the day after (Boxing Day or St. Stephen’s Day), to the day before Epiphany, Jan. 6. Twelfth Night is the evening of the 5th, preceding Twelfth Day. It’s the eve of the Epiphany, the last day of the Christmas festivities, and a time of great celebrations (happily ignoring the next day’s task of putting away the bulk of the Holiday paraphernalia).

Epiphany is the day the three magi (wise men; note the root of “magician” — they were never mentioned as “kings”), who were following the star, arrived at the Bethlehem stable and saw the baby Jesus in the manger. But they saw more than a baby; they saw the Son of God, presented their gifts, and knelt down and worshipped Him. Thus this use of the word “epiphany” — the sudden realization of this unique connection between Creator and created, between the divine and the secular, between the Savior and the saved.

The word "epiphany" is derived from epi (above or after) and a form of the Greek verb phainein (to appear). In pre-Christian days, it was applied to the sudden manifestation or appearance of a god or deity. But since then it has taken on two different meanings, one religious and one secular. The religious meaning is the Feast of the Epiphany (with capital letters) as mentioned above. The more general secular meaning is a sudden intuitive perception or insight into the essential meaning of something.

Now, back to that song …

That much we know, and if that were all there was to it, this wouldn’t be much of a sketch. Let’s write the lyrics of that annoying song here for reference:

On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me

A partridge in a pear tree.

On the second day … two turtle doves …

On the third day … three French hens …

On the fourth day … four calling birds …

On the fifth day … five gold rings …

On the sixth day … six geese a-laying …

On the seventh day … seven swans a-swimming …

On the eighth day … eight maids a-milking …

On the ninth day … nine ladies dancing …

On the tenth day … 10 lords a-leaping …

On the eleventh day … 11 pipers piping …

On the twelfth day … 12 drummers drumming …

Like most old songs and ditties set to music, the lyrics are probably much older than the tune; at least it’s quite certain they were not written at the same time by the same person. But what does it mean? Or does it mean anything? Who would be stupid and inconsiderate enough to send his love all this stuff? What is she (presumably a “she”; I’m sexist here) supposed to do with all those birds, and what’s with all the people? What good are milk maids if my love doesn’t even have cows? Or did they bring cows with them? And who ever heard of staid British lords leaping, and why? Even if the dancers and pipers and drummers are just hired entertainers, it seems a bit much. Wouldn’t it be better to have a few pipers and drummers and dancers together, rather than so many on separate days? It’s obviously a childish nonsense song. Or is it?

Two possible meanings

Like most things I wonder about these days, the Internet comes to my rescue. There is no firm consensus, but two conflicting theories dominate.

The religious theory stems from the suppression of Catholicism during the reigns of certain British Protestant monarchs and Reformists. The theory is that each of these phrases were codes that referred to tenets of Catholicism that would be inadvisable or dangerous to proclaim publicly, but could be used to teach and remind children. For example, the partridge in a pear tree on the first day, Christmas, refers to Jesus; the five gold rings are the first five books of the Old Testament (the Pentateuch); the six geese are the six days of creation; the eight maids represent the eight beatitudes; the 10 lords a-leaping refer to the Ten Commandments, etc.

This theory (if it can be loosely called that) is dumb. First, not all the things listed were prohibited by the reformists. Secondly, they seem really stretched; it would be much easier to make up a better, more meaningful code that would fit … at least I could have were I there. And thirdly, they merely refer to things like the Ten Commandments, they don’t tell us what they are. That would have to be taught elsewhere … perhaps even in more complex codes? No, the religious connotation seems merely a poor attempt to force something to fit that just doesn’t fit, and long after the fact. Such attempts at religious meanings were not even published until at least 300 years after the song was popular.

It is much more probable that it is merely a child’s game or adult parlor game, similar to many of the “forfeits” games played in Victorian England. In such games, participants have to either have an answer (as in the game of similes) or be able to repeat what has been said before and add something, or the like, or be required to “forfeit” or otherwise be out of the game. This theory is borne out by the fact that there are many variations of the song, many changing the last verses (thus the more complicated ones in any game), so that there may be 12 lords a-leaping, 11 ladies (or dames) dancing (or waiting), 10 pipers piping, nine drummers drumming … even 10 fiddlers fiddling.

There were also many other gifts introduced, including hounds, pheasants, bells, badgers, ships (a-sailing), etc. Obviously the game wouldn’t be very exciting or challenging if everyone knew the phrases like we do today; variations were necessary to make a game of it.

We now present a flight of fancy

Now, take a deep breath, close your eyes, and work with me on this: Imagine a Dickens-like setting, a Victorian drawing room on an English country estate, and a Twelfth-night gathering of overdressed and overfed young adults. Reginald F. Puddington III, the host, is sitting in a window-seat with his sweetheart, Miss Bella Flouncecurl. Reggie proposes a parlor game wherein each participant must remember what has been said before and add a phrase, based on the 12 days of Christmas just concluding. (As mentioned, such a suggestion would be normal for the time, and even anticipated; these parlor games were very popular in Victorian England as a means for the sexes to intermingle, cavort, cleverly insert thinly veiled telling comments, and perhaps even — heaven forbid — touch.)

"I'll start, shall I?" he says. Having just finished an excellent repast, perhaps including partridge shot during the previous day's hunting, he recites, "On the first day of Christmas my true love" (here he squeezes Bella's hand) "sent to me … a partridge …" and glancing out the window in thought he spots an orchard, and to make his phrase harder to remember and more comical he blurts out "in a pear tree!" (There is a species of partridge in France, introduced to England around 1790, that does perch in trees, so it is also possible that Reggie actually saw one unwisely perching outside the drawing room window on a cold January afternoon. Alternatively, since the French word for partridge is perdrix, pronounced per-dree, it is possible that he was just showing off his knowledge of the fashionable French language, and he said "a partridge … une perdrix." Try saying it quickly and it sure sounds a lot like a partridge un-e par dree. Oh well, I prefer the pear tree idea, although Reggie is rather proud of his affectatious French and has been known to flaunt it to lesser-educated mortals — not unlike some snobs today).

In any case, he looks expectantly at Bella, and Bella takes the hint. “Oh, a bird, is it? Well, I know what would be appropriate for the second day.” (And here she smiles prettily.) “On the second day of Christmas my true love sent to me … two turtle-doves! Oh, and also a partridge in a pear tree!” (Most of us know, and certainly everyone at that gathering knew, that turtle-doves, because of their strong bonding to mates, are emblems of devoted love.)

Here Bella is so enamored with her swain that she has to be prompted to pass the game on and to point her one free gloved hand toward her friend Emma Snodgrass. Emma, who has been watching her friend with a peculiar expression on her face (concern? envy? jealousy?) starts as if being awakened from a daydream. I don’t like the way this is going, she muses to herself; let’s bring it back down to Earth. “On the third day of Christmas” she intones, “my true love sent to me … three French hens.” There’s not much romantic about hens pecking in the dirt. And, of course, she has the presence of mind to recite the previous phrases as well. Emma is definitely not an unintelligent woman.

Emma triumphantly passes on to Oliver, a cheery, red-faced, rather corpulent young man who by his appearance we assume has an affinity for fine food and drink. Oliver, thinking of the previous day’s hunt and the next day’s feast, comes up with “On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me … four collie birds! (Now know that our “calling birds” is really a corruption of “collie birds,” or blackbirds, in England … as in “four-and-twenty blackbirds baked into a pie.” Yes, they were eaten, and yes, Oliver is thinking about food again.) After being prompted to remember the previous phrases, Oliver yields to Miss Marjorie Demming, a beautiful but frilly young woman for whom he has a burning (but definitely unrequited) desire.

Marjorie has been increasingly hoping for an opening since the introduction of the turtle doves, and bursts out with the Victorian equivalent of “Enough with the birds already! A girl can never have enough jewelry. How about this: On the fifth day of Christmas my true love sent to me … five gold rings! That’s one for each finger, you see,” she adds unnecessarily. “Oh, and of course … let me see … four collie birds … three ah, French hens, those two cute little turtle doves … and a partridge in a pear tree!” she finishes breathlessly.

And so it continues. When Marjorie points triumphantly to her brother Bertram, he, no doubt thinking he has only a choice between jewelry and birds, reverts back to birds for the sixth day. Bertie isn’t known for original thinking. “On the sixth day of Christmas my true love sent to me … six geese a-laying!”

Our flight of holiday fancy, Part Two

Now here we have a short break in our story. We have a quandary. Bertie probably didn’t say “a-laying.” Nor would subsequent players say “a-swimming”, “a-milking”, or “a-leaping.” You will note that from six through 12 our present-day song has a rhythmic chant to it. If the noun is two syllables (ladies, pipers, drummers) the chant works very well, but for one-syllable nouns (geese, swans, maids, lords) it’s necessary to add a syllable (the “a-“) for continuity. If you don’t believe it, try saying it backward from 12 days without it. So this artifact was probably only introduced when the game actually became a song. And (to condense two centuries into a few hours) perhaps that happened later that same evening. But for now let us return to our story.

Continuing with the bird theme that seems to have caught on, Millicent Cuming-Gould intones: “On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love sent to me … seven swans a-swimming!” However, the backward recitation seems to much for her, and she trips over the three French hens and is the first to “forfeit.” As her forfeit, Reggie requires that she confess to a sin of childhood. Blushing, twisting her hands,, and gazing at the rich carpet, Millicent confesses that she once hid all of her nanny’s undergarments and tried to blame it on her little brother.

The rhythmic cadence, or chant as it is called, continues as Mary, another Bertram, Elizabeth, and Harold declare that their true loves sent to them, respectively, eight maids a-milking, nine ladies dancing, 10 lords a-leaping, and 11 pipers piping. None of these makes any sense except perhaps those leaping lords, which might just be the popular Morris dancers of the time. This type of dancing was a popular entertainment, and was known for its leaping style. It is to be hoped that, as opposed to the gold rings, all these entertainers are merely rentals, and will not require the beloved to house and feed them (to say nothing of providing full medical and retirement benefits). During this time, two more players have also forgotten part of the chant and are also subjected to a forfeit; however, out of respect for their privacy we shall not disclose the nature of their forfeits here.

Since there are only 11 young people at this gathering, the game now comes around again to Reggie, who is challenged to come up with something for “twelve” as well as remember all the rest. But Reggie, as an attentive host, has been paying close attention, and even muttering under his breath after each recital. So, after “On the 12th day of Christmas, my true love sent to me … 12 drummers drumming” he proudly stands and confidently recites the entire litany backwards, in a sing-song voice.

“Bravo!” from the men. A smattering of genteel applause by the soft-gloved hands of the young ladies. Then Elizabeth speaks: “You make it sound so musical, Bertie! Let me try something, if I may?” She stands, and of course so do all the men, and glides over to the beautifully polished grand piano, with its humongous vase of Christmas roses perched precariously on top. Observing another social custom of that era and season, many of the group follow and are now gathered around. Elizabeth is known for her prowess at the piano as well as her graceful beauty.


PLUNK-plunka-PLUNK-plunk …

Kinda catchy, eh what?

“Everything after those five gold rings seems to fit this little cadence. But everything up to those darned (I mean, those dashedly devious) rings seems entirely different. Let me try this a bit.”

“Five go-eld rings.”

And she tries a few different melodies, finally arriving at a sequence wherein the five “go-eld rings” become a transition between the peaceful opening statement and the rushed chant of the last seven statements.

“By Jove, I think Beth has got it!”

But seriously …

Now back to reality: The lyrics may have no meaning at all. It may be just one version of a forfeits game for children or adults (if we can call our gathering adults) that someone remembered and wrote down, and someone else set to a catchy tune that was eventually formalized.

The earliest known printed version of the lyrics was in a children’s book in 1780 where it was described as a game of “memories and forfeits.” The now-standard musical arrangement was copyrighted in 1909, and reportedly imported to the United States in 1910 by teacher Emily Brown in Milwaukee, who needed a song for the school Christmas pageant.

But I like my version better.

Its origins were almost certainly a very old forfeits game, but what good is a game now when everyone knows the answers? Maybe next Christmas, I’ll see if the family would like to try a new forfeits game … “On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me … a Kindle Oasis with a charging cover.”

“Oh, electronics, is it?” says granddaughter Tessa (another stage name). “Well, I know what would be appropriate for the second day,” (and here she smiles prettily) … And so it continues. Have a Happy New Year!

Like most old songs and ditties set to music, the lyrics are probably much older than the tune; at least it’s quite certain they were not written at the same time by the same person.

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