These are the twelve days beginning on night of the 25th of December and ending on January 5th (to morning of the 6th), the Feast of the Epiphany. In the Middle Ages this period was one of continuous feasting and merrymaking, which climaxed on Twelfth Night, the traditional end of the Christmas season. Twelfth Night itself was forever solidified in pop culture when William Shakespeare used it as setting for one of his most famous stage plays.
During the twelve days of Christmas, traditional roles were often relaxed, masters waited on their servants, men were allowed to dress as women, and women as men. Often a Lord of Misrule was chosen to lead the Christmas revels. Some of these traditions were adapted from older, pagan customs, including the Roman Saturnalia. Some also have an echo in modern day pantomime where traditionally authority is mocked and the principal male lead is played by a woman, while the leading older female character, or 'Dame' is played by a man.
Some people give gifts, feast and otherwise celebrate on each of the twelve days rather than just on one day at Christmas. Lighting a candle for each day, and of course, singing the appropriate verses of the song each day are a part of modern-day American celebrations. Some still celebrate Twelfth Night as the biggest night for parties and gift-giving. Epiphany morning is then the traditional time to take down the Christmas tree and decorations.
The date of the song's first performance is not known, though it was used in European and Scandinavian traditions as early as the 16th century.
The Twelve Days of Christmas is a children's rhyme that was originally published in a book called Mirth without Mischief in London around 1780. It was originally a memory and forfeit game and it was played by gathering a circle of players and each person took it in turns to say the first line of the rhyme. When it is the first player's turn again he says the second line of the verse and so on.
100 years later the game and rhyme were adopted by Lady Gomme as a rhyme that "the whole family could have fun singing every twelfth night before Christmas before eating mince pies and twelfth cake".
Structure and lyrics
"Twelve Days of Christmas" is a cumulative song, meaning that each verse is built on top of the previous verses. There are twelve verses, each describing a gift given by "my true love" on one of the twelve days of Christmas.
The first verse runs:
On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me
A partridge in a pear tree
The second verse:
On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree
...and so forth. The last verse is:
On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me
Twelve Lords a-leaping
Eleven Ladies dancing
Ten Drummers drumming
Nine Pipers Piping
Eight maids a-milking
Seven swans a-swimming
Six geese a-laying
Five golden (sometimes gold) rings
Four calling (or colly) birds
Three french hens
Two turtle doves
And a partridge in a pear tree
The time signature of this song is not constant, unlike most popular music. The introductory lines, such as "On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me", are made up of two 4/4 bars, while most of the lines naming off gifts receive one 3/4 bar per gift with the exception of "Five golden rings", which receives two 4/4 bars, "Two turtle doves" getting a 4/4 bar with "And a" on its 4th beat and "Partridge in a pear tree" getting two 4/4 bars of music. In most versions, a 4/4 bar of music immediately follows "Partridge in a pear tree." "On the" is found in that bar on the 4th (pickup) beat for the next verse.
There are many variations of this song in which the last four objects are arranged in a different order (for example — twelve lords a-leaping, eleven ladies dancing, ten pipers piping, nine drummers drumming). There are also many parodies of this song, or modernized versions.
One way to interpret the lyrics of this song is that on each new day, all the gifts are given. This makes the total number of gifts given (counting 12 partridges, 22 turtle doves...) equal to 364, one fewer than the number of days in a year. There are 376 gifts if you count the pear tree as a separate gift from the partridge that resides in it. Of the 364 total items, 194 of them are birds, which is just over half of the gifts.
It has been suggested by a number of sources over the years that the pear tree is in fact supposed to be perdrix, French for partridge and pronounced per-dree, and was simply copied down incorrectly when the oral version of the game was transcribed. The original line would have been: "A partridge, une perdrix."
Some Christians assign symbolism to the gifts in the song. One of the most common versions of these assigned meanings is:
* The 'partridge in a pear tree' means there is only one God and is also symbolic of Jesus (see Luke 13:34).
* The 'two turtle doves' are the Old and New Testaments.
* The 'three French hens' are the three Persons of the holy Trinity or the three virtues: faith, hope, and love, though according to Ace Collins' book "Stories of the Best Loved Christmas Songs", they represent the expensive gifts of the Wise Men: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
* The 'four calling birds' are the Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; or their Gospels. Which makes sense because they are "calling" out the story.
* 'Five gold rings' are the first five books of the Bible, or the Pentateuch.
* 'Six geese a-laying' refer to the six days of the Creation.
* 'Seven swans a-swimming' are the seven sacraments and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
* 'Eight maids a-milking' are the eight Beatitudes.
* 'Nine ladies dancing' are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit.
* 'Ten lords a-leaping' are the Ten Commandments.
* 'Eleven pipers piping' are the eleven faithful Apostles.
* 'Twelve drummers drumming' are the twelve doctrines in the Apostles' Creed .
This interpretation is usually taught with a story, confirmed by Ace Collins, that British Catholics, suffering persecution in the 16th century, wrote the song with these hidden meanings. The song would have served as a pedagogical tool. This is, however, extremely unlikely, as the alleged hidden "meanings" are common to both Catholic and Protestant theology. Some sources say that it was merely a "memory and forfeits game" originally played by children.
Sometimes "sent to me" is used instead of "gave to me"; also "five golden rings" is sometimes "five gold rings". Some argue that "gold" is correct and that "golden" is not. But because "gold" requires stretching into two syllables, the word "golden" seems to fit better. Additionally, some interpreters of the song argue that the five rings refer to coloring around the neck of birds such as pheasants, not jewelry.
The line four calling birds is an Americanization of the traditional English wording four colly birds, and in some places, such as Australia, the variation calling is supplanting the original. Colly is a dialect word meaning black and refers to the European blackbird Turdus merula. The line four calling birds in some versions is four coiled birds. One version even had four mockingbirds.
The line nine ladies dancing in some versions is nine ladies waiting. The ladies themselves are also called dames a-dancing, as was the case with Romeo Muller's TV special from the early 1990s (he had eleven dames a-dancing).
In 1981, Hilary Knight, illustrator of the Eloise books, published "The Twelve Days Of Christmas" in the Weekly Reader Children's Book Club, and he had Ten Fiddlers Fiddling.
As well, the last four verses are sometimes interchanged, so that one version of the song may have nine drummers, ten pipers, eleven ladies, twelve lords, or any other combination.
Straight versions of The Twelve Days of Christmas has been covered by many popular modern artists and groups, such as Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, Perry Como, and Tennessee Ernie Ford. The most famous versions are those recorded by Roger Whittaker and the Ray Conniff Singers. Andy Williams rewrote the song into "A Song And A Christmas Tree" on his "Christmas Album".
In Scotland early in the nineteenth century the song was started with:
"The King sent his lady on the first Yule day,A popingo-aye (parrot) Wha learns my carol and carries it away?"
This is taken from Wikipedia at The Twelve Days of Christmas