12 Days of Christmas (the song)

Now that it’s the official traditional twelve days of Christmas, let’s take a look at the song. “The 12 Days of Christmas” is an English folk song. There is a similar song in French too. Like most folklore, the origins and “original” version are murky. But there are some interesting things we can look into.

For one thing, why is the true love giving so many birds? Partridges, turtle doves, French hens, calling birds, geese, and swans. That’s half the days! Actually, one explanation (Baring-Gould et al 1962) of the lyrics claims that not only are those 6 gifts birds, but the other 6 are too. The “five golden rings” referring to the rings on a pheasant, for example. Pipers piping are sandpipers, drummers drumming are snipes (for the sound they make with their tail feathers), etc. There might be some arguing over what birds are referred to in each verse, but perhaps the references would have been clearer 300 years ago?

Another theory is that the numbers and gifts are a mnemonic for teaching catechism, perhaps even especially for Catholics, who were persecuted in England in the 16th and 17th centuries. The “two turtle doves” refer to the Old and New Testaments. The 10 lords a-leaping are the 10 commandments. Snopes contests the Catholic part of the story. None of the symbolic references in the song are things a Catholic would have to hide from an Anglican authority. Perhaps there was some symbolism when the lyrics were originally composed. But the original meanings have been lost. And over time, even the words themselves have changed: the “calling birds” of today were at one point “colly birds”.

Even if we don’t know what the original lyrics were supposed to mean, if anything, we can still learn something about our history from looking at old songs. At the very least, our English-speaking ancestors were very interested in birds?

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