Christmas collection: The history of the classic 12 Days of Christmas song

The 12 Days of Christmas is a song usually learnt in primary school and sticks with you for life. Whether you find the song catchy or annoying… have you ever wondered where the song comes from? Here’s a little run down

The 12 Days of Christmas is the period in Christian theology which marks the span of time between the birth of Christ and the coming of the Magi, the three wise men. It begins on Christmas Day and ends on the 6thJanuary which is sometimes called Three Kings’ Day or the Epiphany. In some Eastern European churches in the Dark Ages, the 12 Days of Christmas was a time for attending daily church services and giving gifts of faith to children. It was a time of rededication and renewal. 

Adoration of the Magi

The earliest known version of the song first appeared in a children’s book called Mirth With-out Mischief in 1780. Most historians believe that the song started out as a “memory-and-forfeit” game in 1800s England where if you couldn’t’ remember a verse, you owed your opponent a forfeit which was usually a kiss or piece of candy. 

There were many variations of the lyrics throughout time for example some mention “bears a-baiting”, “badgers baiting”, “ships a-sailing” and “very peacock upon a pear tree”. At one time some named the singer’s mother as the gift giver instead of their true love. One version mentions “four colly birds”, in Old English ‘colly’ meant “black as coal” so the gift was four blackbirds.

It wasn’t until 1909 when the song we know and sing now was set in stone. The English composer Frederic Austin set the melody and lyrics changing “colly” to “calling” and adding the drawn-out “five go-old rings”. 

A popular theory is that the lyrics to the song are secret references to Christianity to help Christians learn and pass on the tenets of their faith to avoid persecution at a time during and after King Henry VIII’s reign when Christianity was no longer the dominant British faith. Whilst this isn’t supported by any documentary evidence the references do seem convincing:

Partridge in a pear tree = Jesus Christ

2 turtle doves = The Old and New Testaments 

3 French hens = Faith, Hope and Love 

4 calling birds = The Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists 

5 golden rings = The first of five books of the Old Testament 

6 geese a-laying = The six days of creation

7 swans a-swimming = The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Seven Sacraments 

8 maids a-milking = The Eight Beatitudes 

9 ladies dancing = The nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit 

10 lords a-leaping = The Ten Commandments 

11 pipers piping = The eleven Faithful Apostles 

12 drummers drumming = The twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed

So this time next week on Christmas Day, remember it is the first day of the 12 Days of Christmas and what should your true love send to you?….


Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

A Little Insight will be back in 2021

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2 Comments

  1. Wow!! This was so educating. I usually plan a Christmas quiz every year and one of the rounds I do is Christmas traditions, I never thought about the song like this before – the saying really is true ‘you learn something new every day’. Really enjoyed reading this 🙂

    1. Thank you so much for your lovely comment! I am so glad you enjoyed reading it and hopefully you can incorporate some of these facts into your Christmas quiz next year! ✨

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