"The Twelve Days of Christmas," the Historical and Cultural Significance

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"The Twelve Days of Christmas," the popular English Christmas carol that lists a series of increasingly more extravagant gifts given by the recipient’s “true love” on each of the twelve days of Christmas, was first published in England in 1780

"The Twelve Days of Christmas," the popular English Christmas carol that lists a series of increasingly more extravagant gifts given by the recipient’s “true love” on each of the twelve days of Christmas, was first published in England in 1780, but believed to have been translated from an earlier French composition--perhaps, even, an earlier folk chant.

Based on the Twelve Days of Christmas, the festive days beginning on Christmas Day (December 25th) and ending on January 5th, the song reflects the period also known as Christmastide or Twelvetide. Traditionally, the Twelfth Day of Christmastide (which can either precede or follow the actual 12th night depending on which tradition is followed), is followed by the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th, with the first day of the Epiphany and the Twelfth Day overlapping in some traditions.

As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, Twelfth Night is "the evening of the fifth of January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of the Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking." Through the centuries, various churches and Christian sects have changed the actual traditions, time frame, and their interpretations.

St. Stephen's Day (or Boxing Day), for example, for whom a feast is traditionally prepared, is December 26th in the Western Church, but the 27th in the Eastern Church. Boxing Day, the first weekday after Christmas, is observed as a legal holiday in parts of the Commonwealth of Nations. Childermas (or the Feast of the Innocents) is the 28th. Thus currently, the twelve days and nights are celebrated in widely varying ways around the world--with some giving gifts only on Christmas Day, some only on Twelfth Night, and some on each of the twelve nights.

Although the specific origins of the chant are unknown, historians believe it may have begun as a Twelfth Night "memories-and-forfeits" game, in which a leader recites a verse, each of the players repeats the verse, the leader then adds another verse, and so on until one of the players makes a mistake. The player who slips-up must then pay a penalty such as offering a kiss or a treat. In the children's book Mirth Without Mischief published in England 1780, (its earliest known printed version), this is how the game is presented. However, some European historians contend the chant probably originated as a Pagan, folk chant from a much earlier time.

In 1910, this now classic traditional Christmas carol was introduced in the US by Emily Brown of the Downer Teacher's College in Milwaukee, WI, during an annual Christmas pageant she was organizing, having heard the song in an English music store sometime before. Then in the early 20th century, English composer Frederic Austin wrote an arrangement in which he added the more complex melody to "Five golden rings" used thrughout, which soon become the standard.

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(As musicians have no doubt noticed, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is somewhat unique in that the time signature is not uniform, modulating between 4/4, 3/4, and other timing variations.)

But, what exactly did this song mean in the 18th century? And what was the significance of these particular gifts? Although Christianity has since linked each gift directly to an aspect of the Bible, historians agree that the still largely Pagan citizenry of Europe would most likely have placed a more practical, secular value on such gifts.

The first gift:

“On the first Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a Partridge in a Pear Tree.”

Partridges are plump-bodied game birds of the pheasant family related to pheasants and quail. The hen lays about 15 eggs in a grassy cup in grainfields or hedges, with all members of the family foraging for seeds and insects. Native to Old World Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, partridges are poor flyers that typically run when disturbed. It is their inability to fly and unlikelihood of finding them in a pear tree that makes them a special gift.

The second gift:

“On the second Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, two Turtle Doves, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.”

The European turtle dove is a member of the bird family that includes both doves and pigeons. As one of the latest seasonal migrates, turtle doves rarely appear in Northern Europe before the end of April, returning south again in September. Because of the fact that they frequently pairs for life, turtle doves have become emblems of devoted love for centuries. Thus, their symbolism and rarity of finding them in winter make the gifting of a pair a very special gift at Christmas.

The third gift:

“On the third Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, three French Hens, two Turtle Doves, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.”

As the name suggests, French hens are a female chicken breed French in origin. There are several different varieties of French hens with distinctive markings, behaviors, and characteristics which help distinguish between particular breeds. The Houdan, the most significant breed of this time period, was developed in Normandy sometime before 1700 as table foul for French aristocracy. Docile, hearty, and good layers that produce a variety of colors of eggs including white, blue mottle, red mottle and black, and can live between eight and ten years. It is the hens’ ability to lay such a wide variety of colors of eggs (each of which have Pagan symbolism) and its association with the wealthy that make these birds a special gift at Christmas.

The fourth gift:

“On the forth Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, four Colly Birds, three French Hens, two Turtle Doves, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.”

A European colly bird is a common blackbird thought to have derived its name from “black” as related to coal or coalie, which was a popular gift presented either as fresh game or baked in a pie (as in the rhyme "Sing a Song of Six Pense" describes). Though not a rare bird, they would not have been especially abundant in the winter season. This added to their association as a traditional treat makes these birds appropriate as a special Christmas gift--especially four of them.

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The fifth gift:

“On the fifth Day of Christmas my true love gave to me, five Golden Rings; four Colly Birds, three French Hens, two Turtle Doves, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.”

Then as now, gold was a very valuable substance, directly associated with the wealthy, upper class, as well as to marriage. Although this verse wasn’t part of the original line-up, by early 20th century standards, it would have been an especially significant gift to receive from one’s “true love.”

The sixth gift:

“On the sixth Day of Christmas my true love gave to me, six Geese-a-Laying, five Golden Rings; four Colly Birds, three French Hens, two Turtle Doves, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.”

Long associated with fertility, geese (which mate for life) were one of the first birds to be domesticated in Europe, fostering tales of extraordinary laying propensities--even the ability to produce “golden” eggs. The Grey goose, kept for their meat, eggs, and down feathers since ancient times, was especially prized, with females laying up to 50 eggs per year. However, hens must consume a great deal of seeds and plant material while laying, which can become especially costly during the winter months. Thus, to be presented with six geese that are laying equates with fertility and prosperity and would be prized gifts indeed.

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The seventh gift:

“On the seventh Day of Christmas my true love gave to me, seven Swans-a-Swimming, six Geese-a-Laying, five Golden Rings; four Colly Birds, three French Hens, two Turtle Doves, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.”

A close relative of geese and ducks, the swan (which also mates for life), has been highly valued for thousands of years, and was a frequent feature of Greek mythology (Lena and the Swan), as well as Norse legend (the tale of the Well of Urd), Irish legend (the Wooing of Etain), Finnish legend (the Epic of Kalevala), and regarded as sacred since ancient times. Additionally, swan meat has been regarded as a luxury food in England since at least the reign of Elizabeth I (1533--1603)--with the Queen herself said to have even contributed to a recipe of the time. Thus, to be presented seven swans swimming would be regarded as a most significant and sacred gift representing wealth and prosperity of mythological proportions.

The eighth gift:

“On the eighth Day of Christmas my true love gave to me, eight Maids-a-Milking, seven Swans-a-Swimming, six Geese-a-Laying, five Golden Rings; four Colly Birds, three French Hens, two Turtle Doves, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.”

Symbols of exceptional fertility and prosperity, a gift of eight maids milking would have had a two-fold significance in 18th century Europe. Firstly, the symbology of eight maidens (“maids” referring less to virgins than to new mothers ) would have been a highly visible sign of fertility. Secondly, the need for eight maidens to perform the milking of the cows would have indicated extraordinary wealth, fertility, and prosperity--both in possessing such a great number of cows, and in siring eight daughters to do so. Additionally, to have had eight cows all of which were producing milk (which is rarely the case) would have been a sign of remarkable prosperity all in itself.

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The ninth gift:

“On the ninth Day of Christmas my true love gave to me, nine Ladies Dancing, eight Maids-a-Milking, seven Swans-a-Swimming, six Geese-a-Laying, five Golden Rings; four Colly Birds, three French Hens, two Turtle Doves, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.”

Through the ages, dancing women were typically part of choreographed performances or paired with gentlemen during formal balls/galas held in honor of a respected guest. In either regard, to be presented with nine such dancers would be a great honor, and one suggesting a grand celebration held in one’s honor.

The tenth gift:

“On the tenth Day of Christmas my true love gave 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 Colly Birds, three French Hens, two Turtle Doves, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.”

Like dancing ladies--but much more significant--the performance of ten leaping lords would have indicated not just a celebration held in one’s honor, but one in which even royalty attended to pay tribute.

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The eleventh gift:

“On the eleventh Day of Christmas my true love gave 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 Colly Birds, three French Hens, two Turtle Doves, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.”

A symbol of strength, the “salve of the soul,” and the prize of Scottish clans, bagpipes have played a very important role in British iconology and history for many centuries. Though most closely associated with war--said to instantly strike fear in the hearts of the enemy--to be honored with eleven of them (an honor generally reserved for royalty or dignitaries) would be an honor of the highest order.

The twelfth gift:

“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 Golden Rings; four Colly Birds, three French Hens, two Turtle Doves, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.”

Directly related to both ancient motifs and 18th century bagpiping, processions of drummers were reserved for exceptional states of affairs: heroes returning from battle, events held for visiting Heads of State, and to mark an auspicious event. To be honored with twelve drummers drumming would have been a sign of utmost regard and honor. Coupled with the eleven pipers piping and other extraordinary gifts, the presents given by this “true love” would have been remarkable beyond comparison.

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References:

http://urbanlegends.about.com/od/christmaslore/Christmas.htm

http://www.brownielocks.com/twelvedaysofchristmas.html

Myths, Legends, and Folklore of Europe, T. Rolleston

Images via Wikipedia.org unless credited otherwise

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