1. The Origin of the Song
The origin of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is ambiguous. Evidence suggests that it originated from France and three French versions are known. The earliest English version appeared in a 1780 book titled Mirth Without Mischief under the heading “The Twelve Days of Christmas sung at King Pepin’s Ball”. A copy of the book was sold for $23,750 in an auction.
Over the years, several parts of the lyrics have undergone various changes, most notably, the names of the gifts. For example, in many older versions of the song, the fourth gift was “colly birds”. There were even versions where it was “colour’d birds”, curley birds” or “canary birds”.
Another difference is older versions of the songs don’t contain “on” at the start of each verse. So, it was like “The first day of Christmas”. It was only in 1909 when “on” was first added in Austin’s version, and since then, it became the preferred version.
2. The Alleged Meanings of the Gifts
During the late ’90s, emails about the apparent symbolism of the gifts mentioned in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” went viral. Snopes, the internet’s premiere debunker of hoaxes, provided an example of one such email in its article regarding this subject. Here is an extract of the email:
2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the “Pentateuch”, which gives the history of man’s fall from grace.
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
Obviously, the first gift is about Jesus Christ and his sacrifice. Supposedly, “Catholics in England during the period 1558 to 1829, when Parliament finally emancipated Catholics in England, were prohibited from ANY practice of their faith by law — private OR public. It was a crime to BE a Catholic.” Anyone caught doing any Catholic-related practices would either get in prison or even hanged. Thus, this song functioned as a tool to pass down the knowledge of the faith to the next generation through hidden messages.
Just reading this all those years ago made me cringe in incredulity. I was surprised that so many people bought this nonsense. Firstly, you won’t be able to find any documents supporting this claim. If there was a law about it, we should have known about it. Secondly, the “meanings” mostly talked about the numbers and not the symbols. For example, how does the 7 swans-a-swimming relate to the 7 sacraments? You may as well say that the seventh gift represents God’s rest on the seventh day in the Genesis creation narrative. Some people have tried to connect the gifts and their corresponding symbolism. But as expected, their explications were contrived, tortuous and would make conspiracy theorists proud. Finally, this explanation first surfaced in the late ’90s. So, it can be safe to say that it was just a fanciful tale concocted in one of those newsgroups.
Some versions of this story are even more absurd. One version said that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was created by desperate Christians who can’t openly practice their faith during the ancient times. Again, no historical evidence supports this.
Historical Christmas carols expert (yes, there’s such a thing) William Studwell gave this remark:
First, Catholics of that era were not terribly persecuted, so there would have been little need for their teachings to have been secretive. Also, the breezy, bouncy nature of the tune hardly fits with the character of the church at that time. Finally, neither Studwell, nor any other reputable researcher, has ever found a definitive explanation of what each of the 12 gifts in the song would have correlated to in the Catholic catechism.
The truth is, no one really knows what the true meanings of the gifts except for the composer. All we can do is speculate. The only thing we are sure of is that the 12 days in the song signify the 12 days between the birth of Jesus on December 25 and the arrival of the Magi (Epiphany) on January 6. Even though Christmas season nowadays seems to start these days concurrently with Halloween (it starts on September of you live in the Philippines), the Christmas season technically starts on the Christmas day itself, but some argue otherwise, of course.
If you consider it in a more logical manner, you would realize how flawed these claims are. This is one of those hoaxes in which the premises don’t make any sense and yet, many still believe it.
3. Some French Roots
In the December 1867 issue of The Clftonian, someone surmised that “pear tree” is a corruption of the French word perdrix (Old French pertriz) and “colley” is a corruption of the French word collet (ruff, so, “we at once have a bird with a ruff, i.e., the ruff-pigeon”)
4. “My Mother” vs. “My True Love”
In most versions of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, the “true love” is the one who is sending the gifts. However, there are at least a couple of versions wherein the gifts come from “my mother”. They can be found in:
- Halliwell, James Orchard (1853). The Nursery Rhymes of England, pp. 127-128.
- Rimbault, Edward F. (c. 1846). Nursery Rhymes, with the Tunes to Which They Are Still Sung in the Nurseries of England, p. 112.
5. “My True Love Sent to Me” vs.” My True Love Gave to Me”
Most versions use “my true love sent to me”, even the original version. It was only in the mid-1960s that “my true love gave to me” began to appear and it subsequently became popular in North America. The wording may have first made its appearance in a pamphlet titled A Partridge in a Pear Tree: A Comedy in One Act by Lowell Swortzell published in 1966.
6. The Number of Gifts Each Day
Triangular numbers are formed by summing up consecutive whole numbers starting from 1. Hence, 1 is the first triangular number, 3 (1 + 2) is the second triangular number, and so on. As the name implies, triangular numbers can be depicted with the dots formed in triangles:
The number of gifts received each day represents a triangular number. So, to calculate the number of gifts received for a particular day (excluding the gifts received in previous days), you can use the formula for triangular numbers:
where is the triangular number.
For example, to determine the number of gifts received on the tenth day:
Therefore, 55 gifts were received on the tenth day.
Speaking of triangles, as shown in Twelve Days of Christmas Tree on Peter Y. Chou’s site, the gifts can be arranged into a neat triangular manner, since the number of gifts increases by one for each day.
7. The Total Number of Gifts
But how about the total number of gifts received each day, including all the gifts received in the previous days? The number of gifts in the song increases at a cumulative fashion. On the first day, 1 gift is received. The next day, 3 (1 + 2) gifts are received plus the 1 gift received on the first day, for a total of 4 gifts. This pattern continues up until the twelfth day of Christmas.
Calculating the total number of gifts in this way is cumbersome. Fortunately, there is a formula that can simplify the calculation.
The total number of gifts for each day represents a tetrahedral number. Tetrahedral numbers can be depicted with the dots formed in triangular pyramids. That’s why the tetrahedral number is also known as the triangular pyramidal number:
Note that the tetrahedral number is equal to the sum of the first triangular numbers. To illustrate, the fifth tetrahedral number is equal to the sum of the first 5 triangular numbers.
The following formula is used to calculate the tetrahedral number:
where is the tetrahedral number.
To learn the total number of gifts on the eighth day:
Thus, on the sixth day, the total number of gifts received is 120.
8. Number of Gifts and the Pascal’s Triangle
If you don’t want to do calculations, there is a simpler way to determine the number of gifts for each day and the total number of gifts. The method employs Pascal’s triangle.
Look at the second diagonal from the right (or left) of Pascal’s triangle and you will notice a string of consecutive whole numbers starting from 1. The third diagonal from the right contains the sequence 1, 3, 6, 10, 15, etc. These are the triangular numbers we talked about.
Did you see any pattern here?
So, if you want to know how many gifts are received on a particular day, just look up the day’s number in the second diagonal from the right (or left), then look at the southwest number. For example, to determine the number of gifts received on the sixth day:
As the above illustration shows, the number of gifts received on the sixth day is 21.
That’s it! It’s that simple.
Now, this can also be applied for finding the total number of gifts for a particular day. The tetrahedral numbers can be found in the fourth diagonal from the right (or left). Therefore, you only have to move two down-right diagonals from a number in the second diagonal of Pascal’s triangle to see the corresponding tetrahedral number.
So, to determine the total number of gifts received on the sixth day:
So, the total number of gifts on the sixth day is 56
Using this approach, it’s now an easy matter to find out the total number of gifts on the twelfth day. After a quick look, you would determine that the total number of gifts received on the twelfth day is 364. That’s a plenteous amount of gifts! The receiver of the gifts has an average of one gift a day in the year, except for a single day (or two days if it’s a leap year).
9. Remembering the Gifts
The large numbers of gifts can present a challenge to those who attempt to memorize the song. In fact, this song has been used as a memory challenge.
In John Denver and the Muppets’ performance of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, Fozzie forgot his lines a few times. This was played for comedic effect but I can imagine this kind of thing happening for real in a live performance.
Klein Four Group had some trouble remembering the lyrics when they performed a cover version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” called Straight No Chaser Version. However, I can’t blame them since this version sounds complicated and convoluted.
There are several memory techniques out there that can help you remember the names of the gifts.
This page suggests using a simple rhyming peg system to memorize the order and the name of the gifts. I personally don’t use this system (I use a more complicated one), but I can assure you that a number of people could find it useful, not just for memorizing the names of the gifts, but for memorizing other ordered lists as well.
You may also consider using more fundamental memory systems such as the Link System or Journey System.
Now that you have memorized the names of the gifts, it’s an excellent idea to have some practice. This quiz from Sporcle is a good one.
10. Boozy Christmas
Fay McKay was well-known for her signature parody of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” which was called “The Twelve Daze of Christmas”. In this parody, the gifts are replaced with alcoholic beverages. As the song progressed, she gets more and more inebriated.
In 1977, Jasper Carrott did something similar. His version is sometimes called “the Twelve Drinks of Chrismas”. He becomes progressively more intoxicated as he sings the song.
11. 12 Exasperating Days of Christmas
It has been said by many that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is the most annoying Christmas carol and it’s not hard to see why. Due to its repetitious nature, in the right (or maybe wrong) mouth, it can be especially bothersome.
The band Relient K recorded a version of “12 Days of Christmas” which contained the following refrain:
What’s a partridge?
What’s a pear tree?
I don’t know so please don’t ask me
But I can bet those are terrible gifts to get.
Frank Kelly’s monologue, “Christmas Countdown”, is about a man named Gobnait O’Lunacy who got twelve different Christmas gifts from a woman named Nuala. O’Lunacy feels and more anguish on Nuala as he receives each of the gifts due to the misfortunes and troubles those gifts brought to him.
If you want to really annoy people some more, you may try to memorize Polkadot Cadaver’s version titled “12 Days of Christmas, Repent!”, from their album From Bethlehem to Oblivion:
12. The Christmas Price Index
In 1984, the chief economist of PNC Wealth Management, a U.S. bank, created a tongue-in-cheek economic indicator called the “Christmas Price Index”. This index tracks down the prices of the gifts mentioned in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and their changes over the years. It has two kinds of values, namely, the “Christmas Price Index” and the “True Cost of Christmas”.
Christmas Price Index refers to the total price of each of the 12 gifts. On the other hand, True Cost of Christmas is the total price of the total number of gifts (there are 364 of them, remember?). For the year 2018, the Christmas Price Index is $39,094.93, an increase of 1.2% from 2017, and the True Cost of Christmas is $170,609.46, an increase of 0.5% from 2017.
Nonetheless, even this frivolous economic indicator can provide material results. For instance, it illustrates the rapid growth of the service industry in the US as evident by the increased cost of service.
Anyway, there was a quaint anagram about the gifts in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” circulated in a newsgroup several years ago. Some of you may find this of interest: