On the Eighth Day of Christmas

Eight Maids A-Milking

On the Eighth Day of Christmas...Eight Maids A-Milking

The eight maids a-milking addresses two of the major themes of fifteenth and sixteenth century English celebrations and parties during the Christmas holidays – food and romance. What is a feast or party without food? Especially foods that are not common and are reserved for special occasions.

Until the advent of refrigeration, milk was not a common drink because it spoiled quickly. However, milk based products that did not spoil, such as cheese, sour milk (which is actually a cultured milk much like yogurt and is neither sour tasting nor spoiled) and custards were prized treats. Cheese and sour milk are the result of processes that expose milk to so called friendly bacteria which convert the milk to a state where it can be preserved for a longer period and is also tasty. Custard is similar but this involves the cooking of the milk, which kills the harmful bacteria thereby extending the period during which it can be safely consumed.

The maids, of course, refer to the women who would milk the cows to obtain the milk in the first place. In times past milking of cows or goats was typically a job for women. However, the term maid is also the shortened form of maiden which is a young, unmarried, woman. By combining the images of maiden and milk (which can also bring to mind a woman's breasts), it is easy to get the idea that this particular gift has more to do with sex and romance than with cows.

The term eight maids a-milking evokes images of the food, especially the special holiday foods, to be enjoyed at this festive time of year as well as the possibilities for romance, both licit and illicit. While the people of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were not as prudish as the nineteenth century Victorians, there was still pressure, especially for women, to maintain a somewhat chaste image in public. Young upper class (both merchant class and nobility) women were usually chaperoned when in public and when being courted by young men. However, during the Twelfth Night celebrations not only were many of the rules of behavior relaxed but the environment in which the parties were held provided opportunities to escape the watchful eyes of the public. In the midst of a large group of people, many of them strangers, who were busy drinking, dancing and having a good time, it was easy to slip away from one's chaperon or spouse. Masked and costumed balls increased the opportunities for secret liaisons as well as providing additional means of denying your actions the next day. With candles and torches the sole source of lighting, it was often difficult to identify people across the room let alone in the numerous rooms and darkened alcoves found in the castles and large manor houses where the parties were held. The opportunities offered for some passionate time alone with a lover or a quick one night stand with a stranger were a major attraction of these parties.

Further evidence of the sexual connotations of this stanza is the fact that during this time period in England the term to go a-milking had strong romantic and sexual connotations. It was a term that men used when they wanted to ask a woman to marry them or to have a simple sexual encounter. Like similar expressions people use today, asking a woman to go a-milking was a code used by men to test a woman's response to their intentions. Words have meaning and they carry emotional impact. Requests also require a response. Will you marry me and will you go a-milking with me may convey the same message but the nonsense phrase go a-milking does not carry the emotional impact of marry me or come to bed with me. Coded phrases like this allow people to converse more freely while at the same time allowing them to retract a statement more easily. When a man asks a woman to marry him and she says no what can he respond back with without looking desperate and/or foolish? But, when he asks a woman to go a-milking with him and she replies with a no he can easily come back with something like well, I just thought you would like to help me with the cows. In this case his proposal was received and understood but rejected, at least temporarily. However both are able to dismiss it as a misunderstanding of what he really meant. Both laugh and can proceed without loss of dignity on either side.

The Twelve Days of Christmas


On the first day of Christmas,

my true love sent to me

A partridge in a pear tree.


On the second day of Christmas,

my true love sent to me

Two turtle doves,

And a partridge in a pear tree.


On the third day of Christmas,

my true love sent to me

Three French hens,

Two turtle doves,

And a partridge in a pear tree.



On the fourth day of Christmas,

my true love sent to me

Four collie birds,

Three French hens,

Two turtle doves,

And a partridge in a pear tree.



On the fifth day of Christmas,

my true love sent to me

Five golden rings,

Four collie birds,

Three French hens,

Two turtle doves,

And a partridge in a pear tree.



On the sixth day of Christmas,

my true love sent to me

Six geese a-laying,

Five golden rings,

Four collie birds,

Three French hens,

Two turtle doves,

And a partridge in a pear tree.



On the seventh day of Christmas,

my true love sent to me

Seven swans a-swimming,

Six geese a-laying,

Five golden rings,

Four collie birds,

Three French hens,

Two turtle doves,

And a partridge in a pear tree.



On the eighth day of Christmas,

my true love sent to me

Eight maids a-milking,

Seven swans a-swimming,

Six geese a-laying,

Five golden rings,

Four collie birds,

Three French hens,

Two turtle doves,

And a partridge in a pear tree.



On the ninth day of Christmas,

my true love sent to me

Nine ladies dancing,

Eight maids a-milking,

Seven swans a-swimming,

Six geese a-laying,

Five golden rings,

Four collie birds,

Three French hens,

Two turtle doves,

And a partridge in a pear tree.



On the tenth day of Christmas,

my true love sent to me

Ten lords a-leaping,

Nine ladies dancing,

Eight maids a-milking,

Seven swans a-swimming,

Six geese a-laying,

Five golden rings,

Four collie birds,

Three French hens,

Two turtle doves,

And a partridge in a pear tree.



On the eleventh day of Christmas,

my true love sent to me

Eleven pipers piping,

Ten lords a-leaping,

Nine ladies dancing,

Eight maids a-milking,

Seven swans a-swimming,

Six geese a-laying,

Five golden rings,

Four collie birds,

Three French hens,

Two turtle doves,

And a partridge in a pear tree.



On the twelfth day of Christmas,

my true love sent 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 golden rings,

Four collie birds,

Three French hens,

Two turtle doves,

And a partridge in a pear tree!


© 2006 Chuck Nugent

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9 comments

Chuck profile image

Chuck 4 years ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

Anonymous - thank you for visiting and for you comment.

I just published a Hub on the question of the Twelve Days of Christmas carol being created as a type of mnemonic for teaching Christian beliefs or even a code for persecuted Catholics to secretly teach their children about the Catholic faith which was illegal in England from the Elizabethan to the early Victorian eras. Here is a link to that Hub: http://hubpages.com/holidays/Are-Twelve-Days-of-Ch...

While Christian meanings can and are attached to the gifts in the carol, these appear to be recent and not considered when the carol first appeared.

In the case of persecuted Catholics using the carol, there is a little research to back this up but, as I point out in the Hub linked above, there don't seem to be enough facts to support that theory.


Anonymous 5 years ago

Do you know of the christian meanings that each song represents? For example 11 lords a leaping symbolizes the 11 faithful disciples (there was also the unfaithful one), 6 hens a laying being the 6 days of creation (there was also one day of rest so it is not considered 7). You can also see that laying eggs is a kind of creation, and lords, being second to kings in the feudal system, are similar to the disciples, who were in a way second to christ (the king of all men). The song was used as a way for christians to communicate to each other some of the main points of christian teachings. I was wondering if you knew whether or not the song was invented for the purposes you have listed, and then later used by christians, or if the christians came up with the song and it was later interpreted similarly to what you have written.


Chuck profile image

Chuck 6 years ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

Linda - thanks for alerting me to this again. I thought I had fixed it once but I guess it didn't work.

I have changed the link again and it worked when I tested it just now so, hopefully, everyone will be taken to the Twelfth Day of Christmas when they click on the Twelve Pipers Piping.

Chuck


Linda 6 years ago

Chuck, I am still getting "linked" to 11 pipers when I try to go to the link for 12. I'll be checking every day . . . hoping it will be fixed before day 12 arrives!


Ivorwen profile image

Ivorwen 6 years ago from Hither and Yonder

How interesting! Reminds me of going behind the barn to look at the stars.


Chuck profile image

Chuck 6 years ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

Ian, Thanks for pointing out the bad link. I have now fixed it.

Chuck


Ian 6 years ago

Hi there Chuck. I've just been running through this in search of some material for some English language classes for when Christmas comes around, so I thought I'd say thanks, it's all very interesting. You may not be aware that your "twelve drummers drumming" links to the eleventh night bagpipers text. Best wishes from Ian in Spain.


Chuck profile image

Chuck 7 years ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

Aya Katz - Thanks for visiting my Hub.

As to your question, he would probably say the same thing but the context in which the question was asked had a lot to do with its meaning. A man asking a young woman at a party taking place in a castle or large manor house, with each having plenty of dark alcoves and rooms, if she wanted to "go a-milking" all but the most naïve of women would understand that his question was an invitation to join him in a sexual encounter rather that an invitation to leave the party and work on his farm. Similarly, in the case of a man who has been courting a woman and asks her if she wants to "go a-milking" while they are on a date, the woman, again, would know that he was testing to see if she would say yes to the marriage proposal he was hoping to ask next. Now, if the question is asked while on the farm at milking time, most would understand that this was a request, or politely put command, to help milk the cows.

Does anybody know of any other trial balloon type phrases used to say something without saying it directly for fear of criticism or rejection?

Good question and thanks again for visiting.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks

Interesting! So what would a man say if he really did need help with the cows?

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