The Real Twelve Days of Christmas
What are they all about?
Many people, especially those in the Christian tradition, around the world, know the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” but I think, like me, they might not know what the song is all about or what the 12 days referred to in it are.
The 12 days are the days after Christmas. The days before Christmas, starting on the 4th Sunday before Christmas, are the season of Advent in the Christian Calendar.
Advent is the time when the people prepare for the coming of Jesus. They are waiting for the glory of the revelation of Christ, and the primary mood of Advent is of waiting and repentance: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” (Isaiah 9: 1).
During this period it is actually not right to sing Christmas carols: Advent carols should be sung, songs which, like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” express the yearning for salvation, rather than the songs of Christmas which have a joyful, fulfilled feeling: “Joy to the World.”
The time before Christmas is of preparation, of “making the way straight” for the coming of the Lord.
The 12 days after Christmas are the time of great revelry, culminating in the Eve of the Epiphany (6 January), when the Christmas season ends. The period between Christmas and the Epiphany was traditionally a time of strange happenings, when if you did not do certain rituals there would be some nasty consequences. In some parts, especially in Eastern Europe, it was a time of werewolves and other evil manifestations.
The famous song, so well-loved throughout the English-speaking world, most likely was originally a French song and was sung by a lady about the gifts brought to her by her “true love.”
The “Twelve Days of Christmas” is a cumulative song, and reflects the fact that the 12 days were the traditional time of giving of gifts, rather than Christmas Eve. The giving of gifts culminated on the feast of the Epiphany, 6 January, at least in the Western Christian calendar, the Gregorian calendar (the Eastern Orthodox churches still follow the Julian calendar).
The words at the end of the song are:
The twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Twelve lords a-leaping,
Eleven ladies dancing,
Ten pipers piping,
Nine drummers drumming,
Eight maids a-milking,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five gold rings, (probably refers to gold-ringed necked pheasants)
Four Colly birds, (Colly, meaning black, as in “colliery”, misheard and interpreted as “calling” only in the 20th Century)
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a parteridge in a pear tree. (Parteridge is an old spelling of “partridge”)
The legend that the song was also a “teaching” song about the Catholic faith is most likely an urban legend. Its historicity has not been proved.
Twelfth Night was traditionally a carnival-like time when normal relations were turned upside down, and all sorts of strange things were permissible. Something of this was captured by Shakespeare in his great play of the same title, written about 1601. Two quotes which are commonly found in English come from this play:
“If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.” – from Act 1, Scene 1.
And from Act 5, Scene 1: “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrown upon them.”