On the first day of Christmas, my true love queried me: “Just what are ‘the 12 Days of Christmas?’ We only celebrated one in my family, and that was on December 25.”
Your question is a good one, and perhaps shared by many.
Fact is, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” in the famous if slightly puzzling holiday carol are the 12 days between the celebrated birth of Christ (December 25) and the coming of the Magi (Epiphany, January 6). While the song’s roots are unknown, it’s likely French in origin and may have begun as a Twelfth Night “memory-and-forfeits” game, in which a leader recites a verse, each player repeats it, the leader adds another verse, and so on, until one of the players makes a mistake and has to pay a penalty, which is how it was presented in the earliest known printed version in 1780.
Another theory holds that the song dates to the time when Catholicism was outlawed in England (1558-1829) and was a “catechism song” to help Catholics learn the tenets of their faith, as they couldn’t practice it openly in Anglican society, but no solid evidence supports this. The most likely explanation is that the song is simply a secular tune celebrating a joyous season in images of gifts, dancing and music.
And while we’re on the subject of gifts, let’s clear up a couple of things…those fourth-day birds are “colly,” meaning “black as coal,” rather than calling, while the “five gold rings” refer not to jewelry, but to ring-necked birds such as pheasants.
My take: As we get older, I think we’re less likely to feel cheated and more likely to be grateful that the noise, stress, preparation, and general sensory overload is limited to one rather than 12 days each year. Who really needs all those lords a leaping and ladies dancing and turtledoves and partridges? My life is complicated enough without trying to find a place to plant a pear tree and clean up all that bird poop, nor do I have a cow for maids to milk. But the song is still fun to sing…when I can remember all the lyrics, that is.
Recipe for The Twelve Days of Christmas
- One partridge in a pear tree
- Two turtledoves
- Three French hens
- Four colly birds
- Five gold rings
- Six geese a-laying
- Seven swans a-swimming
- Eight maids a-milking
- Nine ladies dancing
- Ten lords a-leaping
- Eleven pipers piping
- Twelve drummers drumming
Combine all ingredients in a large goblet and ingest. Open mouth and sing. Repeat as desired (or until the neighbors complain).