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The Twelve Days of Christmas
A Christmas Carol from the Middle Ages
The Twelve Days of Christmas is a popular carol that dates back to the Middle Ages.
Being much older than other popular Christmas carols, this one appears to have evolved rather than being composed and written at one time. In fact the words to this carol were not put to paper until about 1780 when it was published in London along with other popular rhymes in a book called Mirth without Mischief.
Further, while parts of the carol may have been religious in origin, the carol itself and the celebration it describes are a part of the secular celebration of Christmas.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, most major holidays have been religious holy days that have always been observed by a combination of religious worship and secular feasting and celebrating.
Despite the fact that the carol and its imagery are clearly secular, some do associate parts of the carol with religious symbolism and there is even a theory that the carol itself is a mnemonic used by Catholics in England during the 17th and 18th centuries to teach the faith to their children during a period when the Catholic Church was outlawed in England.
Carol Refers to the 12 Days Between Christmas Day and Eiphany
The Twelve Days of Christmas refer to the twelve days between Christmas Day and Epiphany which is the day the Christian Church celebrates the visit of the Magi or Three Kings to see Jesus in the manger in Bethlehem.
The twelve days usually start on Christmas Day and run through January fifth, the eve of Epiphany. However, there are some variations.
In times past people calculated the days as running from sunset to sunset rather than midnight to midnight as we now do. In this case the twelve days started on Christmas Eve. Some others have counted the twelve days beginning with December 26th and running through Epiphany itself.
Like other Christmas customs, the twelve days of Christmas evolved from local customs and holidays that often pre-dated Christianity and Christmas. We can see this even in the present as the way we celebrate Christmas is changing and growing as society changes.
Some customs and traditions become outdated and disappear, while some change with the times and new ones emerge. For instance, modern central heating has eliminated fireplaces making it impossible to burn a log for twelve days, but Yule logs today have evolved into a log-shaped cake to be eaten during the holidays. St. Nicholas has become Santa Claus and has moved from Turkey to the North Pole, and so on.
Like Christmas traditions, the stories and myths surrounding this carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas, have grown and changed and the carol continues to change over time. In the hubs that follow, each of the twelve days will be explained separately.
Links to My Hubs Explaining Meaning of Each Day in the Carol
- On the First Day of Christmas
Why a partridge in a pear tree? A partridge is not a small bird that can be easily placed in a cage in the kitchen. And the song pre-dates dwarf fruit trees so we are talking about a good sized tree which...
- On the Second Day of Christmas
Doves are a common symbol for love and peace, two Christmas themes. Turtle doves are a common species of dove found in France and England and they were often kept in cages as pets during the Middle Ages and...
- On the Third Day of Christmas
The three French Hens probably refer to a variety of chicken from France. There are many varieties of chicken and in the period during which this carol developed there were three main varieties of chickens...
- On the Fourth Day of Christmas
In the discussion dealing with the Partridge in a Pear Tree in the first stanza of the song it was pointed out that the gift of a partridge in a pear tree may have come about because of a mix-up between...
- On the Fifth Day of Christmas
Unlike the four collie birds in the previous stanza who just had their name changed to a different, and non-existent, species of bird, the five rings in this stanza have, in singers' and illustrators' minds,...
- On the Sixth Day of Christmas
Geese were among the first birds to be domesticated. Our Neolithic ancestors discovered that, rather than spending days searching for animals to kill or nests to rob, it was easier to capture them live and...
- On the Seventh Day of Christmas
On the seventh day the lover sends seven swans. Throughout history swans have been associated with royalty and the swan is often used on royal symbols and other decorations. Swans are also found in myths...
- On the Eighth Day of Christmas
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...
- On the Ninth Day of Christmas
The nine ladies dancing evokes images of music and dancing which were a big part of the celebrations at this period of history in England. The term ladies probably refers to noble ladies as in a Lord and his...
- On the Tenth Day of Christmas
The ten lords a-leaping most likely refers to leaping dancers (called morris dancers) who performed leaping dances between courses at feasts. This type of wild and strenuous dancing probably evolved from...
- On the Eleventh Day of Christmas
At the big feasts held during the holiday celebrations the guests were often entertained by musicians, dancers, jugglers, etc. as well as singing and dancing themselves. Bagpipes and their younger cousins...
- On the Twelfth Day of Christmas
With the twelfth day we have reached the end of the song and have arrived at the last day of Christmas known as Twelfth Night on which the partying and feasting continued. Twelfth Night is the night before...
© 2006 Chuck Nugent