A Background on the 12 Days of Christmas Song

The twelve days of Christmas is a time of year, also known as Christmastide, the Christmas season, or Yuletide. The twelve days count the time from Christmas Day to the feast of the Epiphany on January sixth.  Western Christians had traditionally celebrated Epiphany to mark the time when wise men from the east paid homage to the baby Jesus Christ. 

Now, there’s an old testament principle that a day begins at nightfall, not at midnight or daybreak; thus, the first night of Christmas would occur after sunset on twenty-fifth December twenty-fifth, but the first day of Yuletide would be twenty-sixth December twenty-sixth. Now, following this counting, the Twelfth Night would fall in January fifth the eve of Epiphany, and the twelfth day would be January sixth the feast of Epiphany. 

Several credible sources list the twelve days of Christmas song as being of French origin. The most noteworthy reference is the new oxford book of carols, which not only cites the French roots of the song but says it is based on a game that children would play on Twelfth Night eve of Epiphany. 

In the game, each child would have to remember and recite the objects that were said by the previous child. If successful, the child would add another object to the list for the next competitor to recite. However, if unsuccessful, the child will have to drop out after forfeiting a small token like a piece of candy. The game would continue until there was going to be a winner. 

Evidence of the likelihood of this account can be found in the earliest edition of the nursery rhymes of England in which English Shakespearean scholar James Orchard Hallowell gives the following as the first verse in the original version. 

“The first day of Christmas, my mother sent me a partridge in a pear tree, two turtle doves, three French hens, five golden rings, six geese a-laying, seven swans a-swimming, eight maids a-milking, nine drummers drumming, ten pipers piping, 11 ladies dancing, and 12 Lords a-leaping”. 

In the 19th century, English clergyman Sabine Baring-Gould offered a brief interpretation of the first five named objects in the lyrics. He said partridge in common with many other speckled birds, was an emblem of the evil one, the devil. Two turtle doves have some reference to one’s true love, and the drumming symbolized the harmonious relationship between the good Christians and their creator.

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