The Twelve Days of Christmas

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The song 'The 12 Days of Christmas' isn't just a pretty little Christmas song... oh no. It's a hotbed of religious intrigue, social commentary and the inspiration for some of the oddest cover versions you've ever heard. At least, that's what our Researchers think anyway...

The Last Verse

We would print the whole song here, but it's a bit long in its full form so here's just the last verse. You can click on any of the lines to see what our Researchers think the songwriter was talking about - not that this is any guarantee that it'll help decipher the code, of course.

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me...

Twelve Drummers Drumming
Eleven Pipers Piping
Ten Lords A-Leaping
Nine Ladies Dancing
Eight Maids A-Milking
Seven Swans A-Swimming
Six Geese A-Laying
Five Gold Rings
Four Calling Birds
Three French Hens
Two Turtle Doves
And A Partridge In A Pear Tree

The 12 days referred to are the 12 days after Christmas, not those leading up to it. This is a common misconception that is often used as an excuse to party for 24 days rather than 12.

Cover Versions

With its simple tune and ever-expanding verse length, 'The 12 Days of Christmas' has been an inspiration for plenty of cover versions with doctored lyrics. One of the all-time classics is one from Sesame Street, which features Elmo up a Christmas tree with all sorts of monsters involved, but here's a short list of some of the more bizarre cover versions.

  • Dysfunctional Family Band has a rendition which is about a divorced man down on his luck. You'll need an MP3 player for this one. There's also an abridged version of this song.

  • We believe it was Allan Sherman who sang 'The 12 Gifts of Christmas' back in 1963. It was yet another modernized parody version which featured a transistor radio instead of a partridge in pear tree.

  • Bob and Doug MacKenzie of the Great White North did a version of the song for their own album in the late '80s.

  • John Denver and the Muppets did a cover of it.

  • There's an X-Files version, written back in 1997, which is cute. 'Eight Eves a Clonin' and 'Nine tasty livers' are a couple of examples. Well it's 'cute' to diehard fans of the show: everyone else would be scratching their heads.

  • Anyone fancy The 12 Days of Microsoft, then?

  • A favourite version of this song is by the Bob Rivers Comedy troupe: 'The 12 Pains of Christmas'. It's available for download but nothing beats having the actual album. It's also got songs like 'Wreck the Malls' and 'The Restroom Door Said Gentleman'. '12 Pains' lists the worst aspects of the holiday season, like giving to all those charities when you can't afford it, or having all the relatives over for Christmas dinner en masse, or stringing up the Christmas lights in the middle of a cold December.

  • Then there's 'The 12 Days After Christmas' by Jeannie West which can be found here. Very amusing...

Apparently there is no version of the song in Norwegian, but this isn't regarded as a major problem as Norway has plenty of its own Christmas songs.

The Religious Interpretation

One explanation for the song's lyrics lies in the religious upheavals of the 16th Century in England. The English began writing Christmas carols in the 15th century, but when the Puritans came to power they suppressed Christmas and Christmas carols. From 1558 to 1829* Catholics in England were not allowed to practise their faith openly.

After Christmas was restored in England, festive songs praising feasting and good will developed, but during this time, Catholics could not openly practise their faith as the only legal church was the state (Anglican) church. So, to teach their children basic doctrine, Catholic parents used nonsense songs that would not raise the suspicions of the non-Catholics around them, but would remind the children of their faith.

If you want to know what the Catholics managed to squeeze into the song, we've listed them on each of the individual line's pages - click on the song lines above to discover them. The general background, though is this:

  • On the twelth day of Christmas my true love gave to me
    The first day of the Christmas celebration is counted from 26 December, the day after Christmas, to 6 January, the traditional day for celebrating the coming of the wise men to worship Jesus.

  • My true love
    Instead of referring to a suitor, the 'true love' mentioned in the song refers to God. God is the one who gives all of these wonderful gifts to 'me', and 'me' is symbolic of every baptized person.

  • The partridge
    Was chosen as a reminder of Christ. A mother partridge will feign injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings: she will literally give her life for her children. The pear tree is a reminder of the cross.

  • Two turtle doves
    The Old and New Testaments of the Bible.

  • Three french hens
    During the 16th century, only the rich could afford these costly birds. These represent the three great gifts of faith, hope and love (1 Corinthians 13:13).

  • Four calling birds
    The four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

  • Five gold rings:
    The first five books of the Old Testament or the Torah. These books were treated by the Jews with great reverence and considered worth more than gold (Psalm 19:10).

  • Six geese a-laying
    Eggs are an almost universal symbol of new life. The laying geese stand for the six days of creation. God spoke the word and brought forth life.

  • Seven swans a-swimming
    The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (Romans 12:6-8): prophesy, service, teaching, encouraging, giving, leadership, mercy.

  • Eight maids a-milking
    The eight Beatitudes of Jesus (Matthew 5:3-10) nourish us as milk does.

  • Nine ladies dancing
    The nine fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23): love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

  • Ten lords a-leaping
    Lords were men who had authority in people's lives. The lords are The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3-17).

  • Eleven pipers piping
    The eleven apostles that remained faithful to Jesus and people joyfully followed their message.

  • Twelve drummers drumming
    The twelve vital beliefs that set us apart as Christians found in the Apostles' Creed.

However, it should also be pointed out that plenty of people think this story is untrue, and was simply invented by Christians to reclaim an essentially frivolous song for their faith. It's one of those arguments that will run and run...

The Total Gift List

The total accumulation of unwanted gifts at the end of the 12 Days is:

  • 12 partridges
  • 12 pear trees
  • 22 turtle doves
  • 30 French hens
  • 36 calling birds
  • 40 gold rings
  • 42 geese
  • An unspecified number of goose eggs
  • 42 swans
  • A lot of water
  • 40 maids (assuming you have kept the Lords away from them, so they are still maiden)
  • One assumes, 40 associated cows
  • More gallons of sour milk than it is pleasant to contemplate
  • 36 very tired ladies
  • 30 even more tired Lords
  • 22 breathless pipers
  • 12 drummers - still drumming

This gives a grand total of 416 presents (including the cows, but not the eggs, milk or water). That's quite a Christmas...

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