Twelve Days of Christmas

According to some sites, the “Twelve Days of Christmas” has a hidden Christmas meaning. It’s a secret code for either persecuted Christians or persecuted Catholics, depending on the story being told. Snopes says this is cobblers and that the song is a counting rhyme. But Snopes also says that “gold rings” refers to pheasants and that’s wrong, because the earliest printed version has an illustration of rings, not birds.

12_five_gold_rings

Five gold rings from Mirth Without Mischief. [Wikipedia commons]

The Twelve Days rhyme first appeared in print in 1780, in Mirth Without Mischief, a book for non-mischievous good children. It has the curious sub-heading “Sung at King Pepin’s Ball”. England never had a King Pepin, but France did, thus adding to the idea that the song is originally French. So what about the French hens, three of them? Certainly they were not faverolles, as some suggest, because that bird was not bred until the 1860s. Maybe in the original they were simply “poulets”.

12_days-title

Or perhaps they were something else,  something other than hens. There are several versions in France of a counting song called “The Partridge/ la Peridriole”. The oldest (possibly) says that on the first of May the singer gave his love “a partridge that flies in the trees”. Then he gives her two blue jays sitting on their eggs, three crows, and, in lieu of hens, four blackbirds “with eyes of pearls”. And so on for seven birds. “Blue jays” = “geais bleus” (geese a-laying?). The “calling birds” were originally “colley birds”, i.e., “black birds”, in the English version of 1780, so may be derived from the French blackbirds. A later version of “la Perdriole” includes two turtledoves and ups the number of gifts (and days) to nine. The next version has twelve months of the year and adds milk cows, handsome lads, and beautiful maids. Saskatchewan Métis sang a ten-gift version that included items from the other three. (All these versions may be found here.)

The “Twelve Days” of the English version probably mean the twelve days between Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany. In the Faroes, there are fifteen days and gifts. In the north of England, only ten. (The North always gets short-changed.)

12_faroe-islands-1994-stamps-christmas-um-nh-mint

1994 Faroese stamps showing fifteen days of Christmas. Start on the right with one feather, two geese… [via picclic.co.uk]

So, a counting song. Kids would have to sing it without forgetting or confusing anything. If they couldn’t, they paid a forfeit, or, for older kids, gave a kiss. There are many counting songs sung in the world, including a few more Christmas ones:

Children, go where I send thee.
How shall I send thee?
I shall send thee one by one.
One for the baby Jesus,
who was born, born, born in Bethlehem. (several versions on YouTube)

And that brings us back around to Christian meanings hidden in the Twelve Days. Not likely. Christians have been pretty ambivalent, and sometimes hostile, to the very concept of Christmas. Christ’s Mass is a relatively late addition to Christian holy days and one disdained by early church fathers. At the time Mirth Without Mischief was published Scots Presbyterians forbade the celebration. I suppose they allowed counting songs though. Hmm, perhaps the “code” is an attempt to pretty up Christmas for hard-nose Puritans and Calvinists. No? Well, Merry Christmas anyway.

 

 

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