Whether you love it or hate it, “The 12 Days of Christmas” song is a holiday staple. Sure, you might prefer belting out other beloved Christmas carols like “Feliz Navidad” or Mariah Carey‘s “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” but there’s something about singing the “12 Days of Christmas” each year that makes you feel a little nostalgic. Even if you don’t know all the words, you’re likely able to remember an occasional verse like “Nine ladies dancing!” or “A partridge in a pear tree!” But do you know the “12 Days of Christmas” song meaning and the hidden-message theory about the lyrics?
Not much of the song makes much sense in the modern age, but knowing the rich history behind the elaborate song (which ends up totaling 364 gifts, by the way) puts the seemingly odd lyrics in context. Let’s dive in!
What are the 12 days of Christmas?
The “12 Days of Christmas” referenced in the carol reference the 12 days following Christmas, also known as Twelvetide in Christianity. The period begins with the birth of Christ on December 25th and ends with the coming of the Three Wise Men on January 6th, also known as the Epiphany or Three Kings Day. The weeks before Christmas are known as Advent — hence, the creation of advent calendars.
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Where do the “12 Days of Christmas” lyrics come from?
Though some scholars believe that the song is French in origin, the first printed appearance of the song was in the English children’s book Mirth With-out Mischief. If you haven’t heard of it, that’s probably because it was published in 1780. You could ask the person who shelled out $23,750 at a Sotheby’s auction for a first edition to borrow their copy. But even so, you may not recognize the lyrics.
In the original lyrics, the “four calling birds” were actually “four colly birds.” The term “colly” is old English slang for blackbirds. In other old versions of the song, the partridge we all know and love is replaced with a “very pretty peacock upon a pear tree.” There’s also a Scottish version that gifts “an Arabian baboon.” It wasn’t until 1909 that British composer Frederic Austin penned the version of the lyrics that we are all familiar with today.
Most historians believe that the Christmas carol started out as a “memory-and-forfeit” game in 1800s England. These types of games were played by British school children and the rules were simple: When it’s your turn, you repeat all the previously sung lyrics and add the next one. If you can’t remember a verse, you owe your opponent a “forfeit,” which was usually a kiss or a piece of candy.
Is there a hidden meaning behind the “12 Days of Christmas” song?
There’s a theory floating around claiming that during a time when Christians were punished for worshiping openly, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” song was used to secretly pass on the ideology of Christianity. Per this theory, each gift on the list symbolizes a different aspect of the Christian faith:
- The Partridge in the Pear Tree is Jesus Christ.
- The 2 Turtle Doves are The Old and New Testaments.
- The 3 French hens are Faith, Hope and Charity, the theological virtues.
- The 4 Calling Birds are the four gospels and/or the four evangelists.
- The 5 Golden Rings are the first five books of the Old Testament.
- The 6 Geese A-laying are the six days of creation.
- The 7 Swans A-swimming are the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments.
- The 8 Maids A-milking are the eight beatitudes.
- The 9 Ladies Dancing are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit.
- The 10 Lords A-leaping are the ten commandments.
- The 11 Pipers Piping are the eleven faithful apostles.
- The 12 Drummers Drumming are the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed.
But while it is true that the “12 days” reference the days between the birth of Christ and the coming of the Magi, Snopes breaks down the many historical and logistical errors in the “hidden meanings” theory, including the biggest flaw in the claim: If Christians were living in fear of even mentioning the basic tenants of Christianity, how were they able to sing a song that mentions the word “Christmas” in every lyric?
So there you have it! Here’s a fun fact about the “12 Days of Christmas” tune we bet you didn’t know. Since 1984, PNC Bank has been tracking the price of giving each gift mentioned in the song with the PNC Christmas Price Index. The index uses current market rates to calculate how much each gift would cost, on average, for the modern consumer. We hate to break it to you, but giving someone every gift mentioned in the song would cost you a small fortune — around $41,205.58, according to the current Christmas price index. Partly, this is because swans are really expensive ($1,875 each!). But the real reason the final number is so eye-popping is that the gifts are cumulative — you give each previous gift mention with each subsequent gift, which brings your total number of gifts to 364.
As an Editorial Fellow for Good Housekeeping, Katie covers health, beauty, home, and pop culture. Outside of the office, you can find her killing it on the karaoke machine or listening to true crime podcasts.
As a member of the Special Projects Team, Annie works with the GH Tested program writing up product reviews and roundups and helps plan and run annual expos and events like the GH Parenting Summit, Xmas in July Expo, Cleaning Summit, Winter Essentials Expo, and more. When she’s not working, she can be found running, listening to true crime podcasts, designing graphic collages, or sipping on a margarita.
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