Myths and Legends: The Twelve Days of Christmas

mythsThe poem itself has been around since the 1780’s, but the traditional melody accompanying it today wasn’t written and published until the early twentieth century.  It was first published in a children’s book entitled Mirth Without Mischief  and included in later children’s books such as The Nursery Rhymes of England by J.O. Halliwell, published in 1848.

12DaysChristmasAbout Those Lords-A-Leaping, et al.

The poem became more popular after Frederick Austin composed an arrangement of an English folk melody in 1909.  It was also the first time the elongation of “five  – golden –  rings” was included.  Austin made some other changes like substituting “true love sent to me” with “true love gave to me”.  Originally the fourth verse involved “four colly birds” and he changed it to “four calling birds”.

But what about those gifts?  What are Lords-A-Leaping (and furthermore, why are they leaping!)?   Some have theorized that the gifts actually had certain meanings attached to them.  For some time now the “urban legend” has made the rounds saying it was written as a catechism song to help Catholic children learn about and remember their faith.

There was a period of history when Catholics in England (and later in the United States – see this article) were persecuted by the Church of England.  Thus, in secret coded verses, supposedly the Catholic faith could be kept alive.  The theories are:

Partridge in a Pear Tree=Jesus Christ (providing shelter under its wings)
Two Turtle Doves=Old and New Testaments
Three French Hens=Faith, Hope and Charity
Four Calling Birds=Four Gospels
Five Golden Rings=First five books of the Bible known as the Pentateuch
Six Geese-A-Laying=Six days of creation
Seven Swans-A-Swimming=Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit or sacraments
Eight Maids-A-Milking=Eight beatitudes
Nine Ladies Dancing=Nine fruits of the Holy Spirit
Ten Lords-A-Leaping=The Ten Commandments
Eleven Pipers Piping=Eleven faithful apostles
Twelve Drummers Drumming=Twelve doctrinal points of the Apostles Creed

Of late, the theory has been debunked, because as historian Gerry Bowler points out in his book The Encyclopedia of Christmas, none of the lyric’s so-called secret meanings is exclusively Catholic.  It seems more likely, however, that since it was included in children’s books, it was probably meant to teach children how to count.

Other Versions

Over the years other versions have been published.  For instance, in northern England the song was called “Ten Days of Christmas”, according to Leah Rachel Clara Yoffie, writing for The Journal of American Folklore.  The gifts could be varied as well and the use of alliterative devices or “tongue-twisters” was common: “One old Oxford ox opening oysters” and “Twelve typographical topographers typically translating types”.

In Australia some alternative versions include the replacement of the gifts with various native animals.  In early nineteenth century Scotland, according to The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, the poem included gifts like:

Two partridges, three plovers, a goose that was grey, three starlings, three goldspinks, a bull that was brown, three ducks-a-merry laying, three swans-a-merry swimming, an Arabian baboon, three hinds-a-merry hunting, three maids-a-merry dancing and three stalks o’ merry corn.

A Maori (New Zealand) version of the song was written by Kingi Matutaera Ihaka in 1981, entitled A Pukeko in a Ponga Tree:

On the first day of Christmas
My true love gave to me
A pukeko in a ponga tree

On the second day of Christmas
My true love gave to me
two kumera
And a pukeko in a ponga tree

On the third day of Christmas, etc. . . .

On the twelfth day of Christmas
My true love gave to me
Twelve piupius swinging
Eleven haka lessons
Ten juicy fish heads
Nine sacks of pipis
Eight plants of puha
Seven eels a swimming
Six pois a twirling
Five – big – fat – pigs !
Four huhu grubs
Three flax kits
Two kumera
And a pukeko in a ponga tree!

And, of course, don’t forget to elongate “Five – big – fat – pigs!”

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

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© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.

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