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Twelve Days of Christmas


Twelve Days of Christmas

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The Twelve Days of Christmas and the associated evenings of those twelve days (Twelve-tide), are the festive days from the evening after Christmas Day (December 25) through Epiphany on (January 6). December 26 (St. Stephen's Day) is the first day of Christmas, then December 27 is the second day of Christmas, and so on until January 6 which is the 12th day of Christmas. Christmas Day, December 25, is therefore not one of the twelve days of Christmas. The associated evenings of the twelve days begin on the evening before the specified day. Thus, the first-night is December 2526, and Twelfth Night is January 56.

"The Twelve Days of Christmas" (Roud 68) is also the title of a popular English Christmas carol which enumerates a series of grandiose gifts given on each day of the festival.



These are the twelve days beginning on night of Christmas (December 25) and ending on the day of 6 January as Epiphany begins on (January 6). In the Middle Ages this period was one of continuous feasting and merrymaking, which climaxed on Twelfth Night, the traditional end of the Christmas season.

During the twelve days of Christmas, traditional roles were often relaxed, masters waited on their servants, men were allowed to dress as women, and women as men. Often a Lord of Misrule was chosen to lead the Christmas revels. Some of these traditions were adapted from older, pagan customs, including the Roman Saturnalia. Some also have an echo in modern day pantomime where traditionally authority is mocked and the principal male lead is played by a woman, while the leading older female character, or 'Dame' is played by a man.

Some people give gifts, feast and otherwise celebrate on each of the twelve days rather than just on one day at Christmas.

Christmas carol

The date of the song's first performance is not known, though it was used in European and Scandinavian traditions as early as the 16th century.

Structure and lyrics

"Twelve Days of Christmas" is a cumulative song, meaning that each verse is built on top of the previous verses. There are twelve verses, each describing a gift given by "my true love" on one of the twelve days of Christmas.

The first verse runs:

On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
A partridge in a pear tree.

The second verse:

On the second day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
Two turtle doves
and a partridge in a pear tree.

and so on. The last verse is:

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 gold rings;
four calling birds,
three French hens,
two turtle doves
and a partridge in a pear tree.

The time signature of this song is not constant, unlike most popular music. The introductory lines, such as "On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me", are made up of two 4/4 bars, while most of the lines naming off gifts receive one 3/4 bar per gift with the exception of "Five golden rings", which receives two 4/4 bars, "Two turtle doves" getting a 4/4 bar with "And a" on its 4th beat and "Partridge in a pear tree" getting an entire 4/4 bar of music. In most versions, a 4/4 bar of music immediately follows "Partridge in a pear tree." "On the" is found in that bar on the 4th (pickup) beat for the next verse.

There are many variations of this song in which the objects are arranged in a different order (for example twelve lords a-leaping, eleven ladies dancing, ten pipers piping, nine drummers drumming). There are also many parodies of this song, or modernized versions.

One way to interpret the lyrics of this song is that on each new day, all the gifts are given. This makes the total number of gifts given (counting 12 partridges, 22 turtle doves...) equal to 364, one fewer than the number of days in a year. There are 376 gifts if you count the pear tree as a separate gift from the partridge that resides in it. Of the 364 total items, 184 of them are birds.

Symbolic interpretation

Some Christians arbitrarily assign symbolism to the gifts in the song. One of the most common versions of these assigned meanings is:

  • The 'partridge in a pear tree' is Jesus (see Luke 13:34)
    The 'two turtle doves' are the Old and New Testaments
    The 'three French hens' are the three virtues, faith, hope, and love, or, alternatively, a symbol of the holy Trinity.
    The 'four calling birds' are the Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; or their Gospels
    'Five gold rings' are the first five books of the Bible, or the Pentateuch
    'Six geese a-laying' refer to the six days of the Creation
    'Seven swans a-swimming' are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit
    'Eight maids a-milking' are the eight Beatitudes
    'Nine ladies dancing' are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit
    'Ten lords a-leaping' are the Ten Commandments
    'Eleven pipers piping' are the eleven faithful Apostles
    'Twelve drummers drumming' are the twelve doctrines in the Apostles' Creed

This interpretation is usually taught with a story that English Catholics, suffering persecution in the 16th century, wrote the song with these hidden meanings.

However, this ignores the fact that 16th century English Catholics were being persecuted by people who were also Christians, and none of the doctrines supposedly taught by the song were points of controversy. The urban legend debunking site argues that

"[t]here is no substantive evidence to demonstrate that the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was created or used as a secret means of preserving tenets of the Catholic faith, or that this claim is anything but a fanciful modern day speculation..."[1]

Standard variations

Sometimes "gave to me" is used instead of "sent to me"; also "five golden rings" is sometimes "five gold rings". Some argue that "gold" is correct and that "golden" is not. But because "gold" requires stretching into two syllables, the word "golden" seems to fit better. Additionally, some interpreters of the song argue that the five rings refer to coloring around the neck of birds such as pheasants, not jewelry.

The line four calling birds is an Americanization of the traditional English wording four colly birds, and in some places, such as Australia, the variation calling is supplanting the original. Colly is a dialect word meaning black and refers to the European blackbird Turdus merula.

The line four calling birds in some versions is four coiled birds.

The line nine ladies dancing in some versions is nine ladies waiting.

As well, the last four verses are sometimes interchanged, so that one version of the song may have nine pipers, ten drummers, eleven ladies, twelve lords, or any other combination.

Straight versions of The Twelve Days of Christmas has been covered by many popular modern artists and groups.


Many parodies of the "Twelve Days of Christmas" have been written, perhaps more than for any other Christmas song, as its simple list of gifts encourages imaginative substitutes.

The version performed by the Canadian comedy team Bob & Doug McKenzie replaces the first gift with "a beer" then "a beer, in a tree" (awkwardly metered to match the traditional "a partridge in a pear tree"), substituting the other gifts on the list with other stereotypically Canadian items such as 8 comic books (after complaining about the length of the song they skip to day twelve but talk over the part that lists days 12 through 9), 7 packs of smokes, 6 packs of two-four (case of beer with 24 bottles or cans), 5 golden tuques, 4 pounds of back bacon, 3 french toasts, 2 turtlenecks, and a beer in a tree.

In his 1959 satire of the over-commercialization of Christmas, called "Green Chri$tma$", Stan Freberg invented several short and different variations of the song, including:

  • "Five tubeless tires"
  • "Four quarts of gin"
  • "Three cigars"
  • "Two cigarettes"
  • "And some hair tonic on a pear tree"

In the 11th episode of the first season of the TV show Scrubs, a parody relates the reasons why doctors try to avoid being on-call on Christmas eve:

  • 12 beaten children
  • 11 drive-by shootings
  • 10 frozen homeless
  • 9 amputations
  • 8 burn victims
  • 7 strangled shoppers
  • 6 random knifings
  • 5 suicides
  • 4 beaten wives
  • 3 OD's
  • 2 shattered skulls
  • and a drunk who drove into a tree

In the 1960s, comedy songwriter Allan Sherman composed and sang (along with a choir) the "12 Gifts of Christmas", and although it may seem strange, on the 12th day of Christmas he decided to exchange the eleven previous gifts:

  • "Automatic vegetable slicer that works when you see it on television, but not when you get it home";
    "Chromium combination manicure scissors and cigarette lighter";
    "Pair of teakwood shower clogs";
    "Indoor plastic birdbath";
    "pink satin pillow that says 'San Diego' with fringe all around it";
    "Hammered aluminum nutcracker";
    "Statue of a [naked] lady with a clock where her stomach ought to be";
    "Simulated alligator wallet";
    "Calendar book with the name of my insurance man";
    "Green polka dot pajamas";
    and a "Japanese transistor radio", a Nakashuma, the Mark IV model (that's the one that's discontinued), in a leatherette case with holes in it so you can listen right through the case, and a wire with a thing on one end that you can stick in your ear, and a thing on the other end that you can't stick anywhere because it's bent.

The version by The Muppets with John Denver is done with the traditional words, but with embellishments, notably by Miss Piggy, breaking up the "straightness" of the presentation.

Jeff Foxworthy's "Redneck" version has become the most popular parody version heard on American radio as of 2004. The gifts include a 12-pack of Bud, 11 rasslin' tickets, a 10 of Copenhagen, 9 years probation, 8 table dancers, 7 packs of Red Man, 6 cans of SPAM, 5 flannel shirts, 4 big mud tires, 3 shotgun shells, 2 hunting dogs, and some parts to a Mustang GT. Unlike most other versions of the song, Foxworthy's does not feature the characteristic numerical verses.

Scottish Comedian Bill Barclay recorded a version (sometimes titled "The 12 drinks of Christmas"). Each verse contains a stronger drink, with Bill becoming more and more drunk as the song progresses.

A popular parody in the United States, The Twelve Pains of Christmas (performed by Bob Rivers and his comedy troupe), does away with numbering altogether and instead lists some of the activities that drive Americans crazy during the Christmas season from lighting, to gift-giving, to dealing with family members, even singing carols. Also included are these things: finding a christmas tree, rigging up the lights, hangovers, sending christmas cards, five months of bills, facing my inlaws, charities and others

On the Sesame Street Christmas CD, the gang improvises:

Cookie Monster gets well, a cookie, Elmo gets 2 baby frogs, an Anything Girl gets 3 footballs(?), Grover gets 4 wooly bears, Bert gets 5 argyle socks, Ernie gets 6 rubber ducks, Oscar gets 7 trashcans, The Count gets 8 counts, Big Bird gets 9 lbs. of birdseed, Telly demands 10 triangles, Harry Monster wants 11 broken buildings and Snuffy can't remember what he got.

Blizzard Entertainment released a free MP3 for its fans with the voice actors from StarCraft singing about different items in that video game. The list for that version:

  • "A brand new Scv";
  • "2 Terran Wraiths";
  • "3 Marines";
  • "4 Hydralisks";
  • "5 new born Queens";
  • "6 Zealots fighting";
  • "7 Zerglings swarming";
  • "8 Archons burning";
  • "9 Battlecruisers";
  • "10 UltraLisks";
  • "11 Science Vessels";
  • "12 Arbiters"

However in their MP3, the Archons only say "8 Archons burning" when they are introduced and on the 12 verse. On the 9th verse they say "Power Overwhelming." on the 10th verse they say "Terror All-Consuming" and on the 11th verse they say "I Hate All This Singing."

At, Garfield receives a partrige in a pear tree, 2 teddy bears, 3 fruitcakes, 4 jelly rolls, 5 million presents, 6 dogs a-kicking, 7 bunny slippers, 8 plates of pasta, 9 spiders wacking, 10 cups of coffee, 11 hairballs hacking, and 12 mice a-dancing.

The Yobs, a British punk band, sing a perverted version featuring, amongst other obcenities, "5 ####### ######", 2 blow up dolls and a vibrator with a battery.

In a version "The Twelve Days after Christmas", the singer and his true love "had a fight". As a result, the singer spent the song describing how the gifts were disposed of by giving them away or (for most of the non-human gifts, which were sent back Collect, minus one drummer) killed.

In the Discworld novel Hogfather, Mustrum Ridcully sings what seems to be "The Twelve Days of Hogswatch", clearly a rather less unilateral song: "On the second day of Hogswatch I... sent my true love back A nasty little letter, hah, yes, indeed, and a partridge in a pear tree."

In the 2006 album A Twisted Christmas, Twisted Sister covered the song. It goes as follow:

On my heavy metal Christmas my true love gave to me,

  • "12 Silver crosses";
  • "11 Black mascaras";
  • "10 Pairs of platforms";
  • "9 Tattered t-shirts";
  • "8 Pentagrams";
  • "7 Leather jackets";
  • "6 Cans of hairspray";
  • "5 Skull earrings";
  • "4 Quarts of Jack";
  • "3 Studded belts";
  • "2 Pairs of spandex pants";
  • "And a tattoo of Ozzy!";


As a tongue-in-cheek economic indicator, each year economists will compute the cost for all the gifts mentioned in the song. For 2005, the survey by PNC Advisors showed a 9.50% increase over 2004. It breaks down to:

  • One Partridge in a Pear Tree: $104.99 ($15.00 Partridge, $89.99 Pear Tree)
  • Two Turtle Doves: $40.00 ($20.00 each)
  • Three French Hens: $45.00 ($15.00 each)
  • Four Calling Birds: $399.96 ($99.99 each)
  • Five Gold Rings: $325.00 ($65.00 each)
  • Six Geese-a-Laying: $300.00 ($50.00 each)
  • Seven Swans-a-Swimming: $4,200.00 ($600.00 each)
  • Eight Maids-a-Milking: $41.20 ($5.15 each)
  • Nine Ladies Dancing: $4,576.14 ($508.46 each)
  • 10 Lords-a-Leaping: $4,039.08 ($403.91 each)
  • 11 Pipers Piping: $2,053.20 ($186.66 each)
  • 12 Drummers Drumming: $2,224.30 ($185.36 each)

Total Christmas Price Index: $18,348.87
"Core" index, excluding swans: $14,148.87
True cost of Christmas in song: $72,608.02 (including 364 total gifts)


External links

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Christmas Guide, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.