THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS
THE COUNTRY ESTATE (FOOD) EXPLANATION
It seems likely that the popular "Twelve Days of Christmas" song relates to the stocking and running of a country estate.
The "partridge in a pear tree" refers to a plot of wooded land suitable for breeding game birds such as partridges, pheasants and other game birds. It is also suggested that the gift of a pear tree would get a person started on their own orchard with a view to fermenting the fruit into perry! If the tree was itself a gift, the giver would probably have chosen a more exotic fruit tree e.g. orange tree as these were grown in large pots in the orangery (a bit like a greenhouse for over-wintering tender plants) of large houses. If this gift is indeed given on 12 consecutive days, it results in a moderate orchard and a foundation flock of partridges. Partridges are not indigenous to England (introduced during the 1770s from France), but they provide better alliteration in the song, so the actual reference was probably to another small game bird. The "pigeon" seems an obvious choice, but pigeons are covered by the reference to 2 turtle doves.
The two turtle doves, while a classic symbol of love, are a food item although wood pigeons are preferable for meat yield. Many big houses kept dovecotes, not for ornamental value as today, but to breed pigeons for their meat. A male and female turtle dove would certainly have started off someone's a dovecote. If the gift is given on 11 days it would more than adequately stock the dovecote. Today, dovecotes are ornamental and usually have white fantail doves rather than pigeons for the pot. Doves are varieties of pigeon.
The recipient's poultry flock is augmented by 3 French hens (a total of 30 if the gift is given on 10 days), although hopefully one of the birds is actually a cockerel! It is equally likely that the French hens would be put with an English barnyard fowl. Quite what breed the "French" hen alludes to is uncertain, but it seems likely that its eggs were somehow superior to those of English breeds, or that it is more productive, or even that it was a fancy fowl which also served as an affectation or status symbol. In the earlier part of British history, albeit well before this song, hens were unknown and ducks were kept for their eggs.
Although the 4 colley birds is frequently explained as 4 coaly (black) birds, it is just as likely to be calling birds in keeping with the food theme. A "calling" pheasant i.e. one trying to attract a mate, is tethered or caged and attracts other birds into the area. Gamekeepers put calling birds - not just pheasants - on land where they want to increase the grouse or pheasant population, e.g. moorland used for game shooting - hence "calling birds" could be a useful gift. This practice is still found today. Once more, if given on multiple days, it provides the foundation of an excellent stock of gamebirds. If the "coaly" interpretation is preferred - and colley was, at the time, an adjective meaning black- it still provides a little more than 4-and-20 blackbirds required for pie.
Five gold rings is a debatable one. If taken literally, it indicates a gift of wealth in the form of jewelry or gold coins. The rings might mean "round pieces" e.g. coins. This would eventually amount to a small treasure chest of gold, possibly indicating a dowry. It is also suggested that the gold rings refer to yellow rounds of cheeses - not as silly as you might think when you consider that a later gift includes dairy cattle and maids to milk them. The estate would produce milk, butter, cheese and eggs - or as a modern writer has suggested "at least some of the ingredients of a good quiche" (which harks back to the French connection begun with the Partridge and the French Hens)!
A much better explanation, though, is that the 5 gold rings means 5 ring-necked pheasants - another game bird essential for any country estate and still eaten at Christmas today. This also fits the pattern of gifts - partridge, pigeons, poultry, blackbirds, pheasants, geese and swans - all birds.
6 geese a-laying would provide not only eggs, but also meat. The 7 swans a swimming might sound picturesque today, but swans were eaten in the same as ducks or geese (and are very similar in flesh). Swans are also a symbol of the gentry (today most are possessions of the crown) and allude to the wealth of the estate - something already suggested if the gold rings are gold coins. The swans, geese and inevitable ducks could be expected to breed and populate a waterfowl lake on the estate. A well-appointed estate would have woodland for gamebirds and a lake for waterfowl, some of which might be ornamental, but most of which were farmed for their eggs, flesh and even for their feathers (used in quilts, pillows, arrow fletchings etc). Goose-grease was an excellent lubricant for mechanical items and also used as the basis for ointments (a goose-grease based ointment has been used in the treatment of mastitis, or inflamed udder, in dairy cattle).
The later gifts almost certainly allude in part to the staff needed for running the estate. Consider the 8 maids a-milking - the maids need something to milk i.e. cattle (unless you have a bawdy personality and interpret them as maids in milk i.e. wet nurses - though they would not then be described as "maids"). The cattle (if you multiply the number of cows by the number of days they are given you end up with a sizeable herd) require milkmaids. The women are not described as "milkmaids" but as "maids a-milking" which suggests the gift is one of "maids" in general i.e. ladies' maids, kitchen maids, chamber maids etc.
The 10 leaping lords, 9 dancing ladies, 11 pipers and 12 drummers are suggestive of a celebratory feast, possibly to Christmas dinner itself. This would be accompanied by music i.e. the pipers who accompanied the meal as well as providing music for dancing later on. Pipes and drums were popular instrumental combinations. Bear in mind that some of these turn up on consecutive days resulting in 36 ladies, 30 lords, 22 pipers and 12 drummers! Perhaps some of these were not "lords" or "ladies" in the sense of wealthy individuals, but are further references to the staff leaping or scurrying about their tasks or to tenant farmers on the estate.
If not references to staff, the leaping lords and dancing ladies would refer to the celebrants at the meal, especially to the dancing later on. There is a suggestion that this comes full circle to the perry (an alcoholic drink akin to cider) made from the pear tress mentioned at the beginning. This ties in with the saying "as drunk as a lord". Another suggestion is that "leaping" indicates the effects of hallucinogenic ergotamine poisoning due to bacteria in stored grain.
All in all, we have some of the basics for a largely self-sufficient country estate - a considerable staff for the household and grounds, a dairy, poultry, waterfowl, gamebirds, orchard and possibly a large amount of money in the form of gold coin. Possibly some of the other essentials, for example the stables, simply weren't poetic enough for inclusion.
THE BIBLICAL EXPLANATION (URBAN LEGEND)
Somewhere along the line, someone decided to claim the "Twelve Days of Christmas" for their own, in much the same way that early Christians claimed a pagan festival (Yule, Winter Solstice) and its symbols (Yuletide evergreens) and combined them with Christian symbols. This annexation of non-Christian symbols and themes is fairly common. In my entirely fictional "food" explanation above, I have already proved how it is possible to reinterpret the song to add your own meanings (all that is needed is a little imagination).
In non-Christian tradition, the Twelve Days of Christmas are the twelve days before Christmas; the twelve Nights of Yule are 20th December to 1st of January. In the Western Church, the twelve days from Christmas are the days from December 25th until January 5th (Twelfth Night), with Epiphany (Three Kings Day) being on January 6th. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Christmas is celebrated on January 7th so the 12 days occur before Christmas.
"The Twelve Days of Christmas" is a nonsense song or memory game for children (and for inebriated adults). It has far more recently been claimed by Christians as being a Catholic catechism song. The Christian religion is full of "numbers of things" (2 Bible testaments, 4 Gospels, 7 deadly sins, 10 Commandments etc) so it is an easy task for anyone conversant with the Bible to match numbers of things to the gifts in the song and to claim the gifts to be religious references or symbols. The religious interpretation claims that it was a mnemonic aiding secret instruction in the Catholic faith in the 16th Century when Catholicism was prohibited (and at various times between 1558 and 1829 varied from being a capital offence to being tolerated). The "true love" would therefore mean the Christian god and the "me" would be the baptised person, the "days" supposedly represent important aspects of the Catholic Christian tradition and the partridge would be Jesus represented as a protective mother partridge (a feminine aspect of Jesus? Good gracious!).
The problem with debunking the supposed religious origins of the "Twelve Days of Christmas" is that adherents to the explanation have their own personal agendas for maintaining the urban legend. There is no firm evidence to support a religious explanation. Meanwhile, religious adherents will claim there is no firm evidence to disprove it. If a religious connection makes people more comfortable singing it, that's no problem as long as the modernity of the religious connection is acknowledged (or at least is not disguised). It is equally possible to interpret the song as being entirely about a wealthy individual stocking a country estate with food and servants, possibly with a dowry thrown in and the five rings leaves it wide open to an Olympic sports interpretation!
The religious connection:-
True Love = the Christian deity
Me = baptised individual
1 Partridge in a Pear Tree = Jesus (son of the Christian deity)
2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments, or Adam and Eve, or the two-of-each-kind in Noah's Ark
3 French Hens = Theological virtues: Faith, Hope and Love/Charity or Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
4 Calling Birds = the 4 Gospels and/or the 4 Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = The first 5 Books of the Old Testament (Pentateuch), or the 5 decades of the rosary, or the 5 obligatory sacraments
6 Geese A-laying = the 6 days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit, the 7 sacraments, the seventh day (sabbath)
8 Maids A-milking = the 8 beatitudes i.e. the "blessed are" recitations
9 Ladies Dancing = the 9 Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the 10 commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the 11 faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the 12 points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed, the 12 tribes of Israel
The Religious explanation has some gaping holes in it. Firstly, many of the enumerated items above were common to both Catholic and Protestant traditions and there was no need to encode them to preserve the tenets of the Catholic Christian tradition. These could be taught openly - the cryptic references are entirely unnecessary.
Secondly, why have a teaching song which can only be sung at Christmas? What mnemonics did they sing throughout the rest of the year? The content would quickly be forgotten by youngsters in the interval between Christmases! Supposedly in nursery rhymes such as "Sing a song of sixpence" (the Reformation -destruction of English monasteries by Henry VIII), "Rock-a-bye, baby" (downfall of James II in 1688), "Ring-a-ring of roses" (black plague of 1665), although those hidden meanings have been read into simple nonsense rhymes at later dates. Even today, there are some people who delight in reinterpreting such things and adding "hidden" meanings entirely for their own amusement.
Thirdly, many of the symbols have no obvious connection to the religious concepts they supposedly represent. How can eight milkmaids represent 8 beatitudes? What connection is there between 9 dancing ladies and 9 fruits of the Holy Spirit? This indicates that the religious explanation has been retrofitted to the existing song. Fourthly, some numbers have multiple or variant explanations (e.g. the 4 gospels, 5 rings); a true mnemonic has a one-to-one mapping otherwise it is useless as a memory aid. The number of different explanations for several of the enumerations is symptomatic of retrofitting meanings to a pre-existing nonsense rhyme.
The religious explanation is attributed to a certain Father Hal Stockert who claims to have discovered it while researching an unrelated project via Latin texts. He apparently first reported it in 1982 and it was published in 1995 via the Catholic Information Network. His primary "sources" were cited as asides in letters from Irish Jesuit priests writing to the motherhouse at Douai-Rheims, France. Inconveniently for those wanting to verify these claims, Stockert's notes were lost when a plumbing leak flooded the church basement. His original article is allegedly on a computer floppy disk so old that nobody has a machine that can read it, anymore - in fact, there are specialist data retrieval firms able to reclaim data from ancient disks/tapes and there are museums full of old computer equipment, much of it still in working order. In other words, there is no evidence. What Stockert has done (there being no independent corroborating evidence) is no different to what many others have done over the centuries - making existing items compatible with religious beliefs (the same goes for adopting pagan evergreens).
The "Twelve Days of Christmas" seems to have come from France, there being three known French versions. Some of the enumerated items were not found in England in the 16th Century. The partridge (also known as the French partridge) was introduced into England in the latter part of the 18th Century. The first several gifts are all birds: partridge, turtle doves, French hens, colly-birds (blackbirds), ring-necked pheasants (the 5 "gold rings" of the song), geese and swans. The remaining gifts are all people.
"The Twelve Days of Christmas" may have begun as a Twelfth Night memory/forfeit game. The song leader recites a verse, each player repeats it, the leader adds another verse, the players repeat the new verse and the old ones until someone makes a mistake and pays a penalty- historically a chaste kiss or a sweetmeat. According to Leigh Grant's "A Celebration and History," the 1780 children's book "Mirth Without Mischief" is the oldest printed version of the song and presents it as a game. Modern memory/forfeit games are often drinking games where the penalty is drinking a measure of alcohol, thus increasing the likelihood of errors later on! According to Leigh Grant's "A Celebration and History," the 1780 children's book "Mirth Without Mischief" is the oldest printed version of the song and presents it as a game.
For those interested in such things, a similarly structured repetition-based song is "Green Grow the Rushes, O!": One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so. Two, two the lily-white boys, clothed all in green, ho-ho. Three, three the rivals" etc. It would certainly fill the months when Christmas songs are inappropriate, especially as it openly contains religious references!
There is a now-forgotten song from 1625 similar in theme to the "Twelve Days of Christmas". "A New Dial" aka "In Those Twelve Days" is a question-and-answer song which does associate religious meanings with either the 12 days or the 12 hours of the day (since it is a dial). It is a Christian song (except perhaps for the Muses from Graeco-Roman mythology), but not a teaching song. Perhaps Stockert transferred some of this forgotten song's meanings to the more popular "Twelve Days of Christmas".
What are they that are but one?
What are they which are but seven?
Seven refers to the liberal arts of the 13th century scholastics: the "trivium:" grammar, rhetoric and dialectic and the "quadrivium:" arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. Early scholastics also gives the nine Muses of ancient Greece: Calliope (epic song), Clio (history), Euterpe (lyric song), Thalia (comedy) Melpomene (tragedy), Terpsichore (dance), Erato (erotic poetry), Polymnia (sacred song) and Urania (astronomy). Eleven thousand virgins refers to the legend of St Ursula; the high number is probably a mis-translation of St Ursula and eleven virgins. Although the verse mentions "heaven's 9 spheres" Uranus, Neptune and Pluto were not known in 1625, hence the verse has either mutated over time or refers to the 9 orders of angels.
HOW THE RELIGIOUS SYMBOLS ARE RETROFITTED TO THE SONG
Partridge in a Pear Tree
Two Turtle Doves
The Old and New Testaments of the Bible. This ignores the many books which have been excluded from the Bible because they somehow did not fit in (the Bible has been edited by humans who decided what went in and what stayed out). In addition to the two testaments, there is the Apocrypha and there are collections of books now published as "The Lost Books of the Bible" and "The Forgotten Books of Eden". Alternatively it is the two first humans - Adam and Eve - or even the two of each type of animal taken on board the Noah's Ark. The Bible contains plenty of twos to choose from which are more persuasive than the number of testaments (which was decided by its editors).
Three French Hens
The Three Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope, Love (1 Corinthians 13:13) or Faith, Hope and Charity (Cherishing). It could also mean the "Love, Honour and Obey" of the Christian wedding service. Then there is the more conventional trinity of Father, Son, Holy Ghost, the Three Kings or the threesome of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. Once again, the Bible has a host of threesomes to choose from.
Four Colley/Calling Birds
You can take your pick of The Four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John or the Four Evangelists: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel
Five Gold(en) Rings
First Five Books of the Old Testament (Torah, Pentateuch): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, detailing the creation and man's fall from grace (Christianity's take on the creation myths common to all cultures). Or you could have the five decades of the rosary, the five obligatory sacraments of the church or even the five senses. It seems there are plenty of fives to choose from.
Six Geese a-laying
The six days of creation (Genesis 1).
Seven Swans a-swimming
Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, prophecy, discernment, speaking in tongues (also defined as prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, compassion) (Romans 12:6-8; cf. 1 Corinthians 12:8-11) Alternatively it means the seventh day, drawing attention to observing the Sabbath, or the seven sacraments.
Eight Maids a-milking
Eight Beatitudes i.e. "blessed are":- the poor in spirit; those who mourn; the meek; those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; the merciful; the pure in heart; the peacemakers; those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake. (Matthew 5:3-10)
Nine Ladies Dancing
The nine Fruit of the Holy Spirit: Love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance (also defined as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control) (Galatians 5:22)
Ten Lords A-leaping
Ten commandments (Exodus 20:1-17)
Eleven Pipers Piping
Eleven Faithful Apostles: Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James bar Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, Judas bar James. (Luke 6:14-16). The twelfth disciple was the traitor Judas Iscariot.
Twelve Drummers Drumming
It could have been the 12 Apostles (including Judas), but these have already been used to explain the 11 pipers. Therefore the Biblical association attached to the song became the 12 points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed: 1) I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. 2) I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. 3) He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. 4) He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell [the grave]. 5) On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. 6) He will come again to judge the living and the dead. 7) I believe in the Holy Spirit, 8) the holy catholic Church, 9) the communion of saints, 10) the forgiveness of sins, 11) the resurrection of the body, 12) and life everlasting. This really does play the numbers game since (4) contains 3 items - torture, crucifixion and descent into the grave; (5) also contains 3 items - rising again, ascension to heaven, seated at the right hand and numbers (7) to (12) are a single item which has been split into 6 parts to make up the numbers! The Twelve Tribes of Israel is a far neater enumeration.
GREEN GROW THE RUSHES-O
This is a traditional English counting song from the 16th Century with a similar structure to "Twelve Days of Christmas" and which has been a Christmas carol in the past. Unlike "Twelve Days of Christmas", it exists in multiple versions with interchangeable verses and may have come to England from Germany or Scandinavia, hence apparently pagan (Yule) symbolism in some variants. It is also called "Children Go Where I Send Thee", "I'll Sing You One Oh", "Carol Of The Twelve Numbers", "The Twelve Apostles" and the "Dilly Song". Many versions contain religious references, but hasn't (yet) been claimed as a secret catechism teaching song in the same way as "Twelve Days of Christmas", probably because it is less well known and because there are already known Christian, Jewish and pagan variants which would undermine any such claim. Two contrasting versions of the full enumerations are given by the final verse:-
I'll sing you twelve, O
I'll sing you twelve, O
The associations attached to the "Twelve Days of Christmas" could be transferred to this song. The following are additional interpretations which have been attached to the song.
One is one, and all alone, and ever more shall be so
The One Christian deity; the commandments instruct that there shall be "no other god before me".
Two lily-white boys
The two testaments of the Christian Bible, or Moses and Aaron, or Cain and Abel, Jesus and John the Baptist or (since they are clad in green) two Yuletide evergreens such as the holly and ivy.
Three rivals/three arrivals
If interpreted as "three arrivals" it is easily interpreted as the three magi or three patriarchs. The "three rivals" is more cryptic, but could be the rivals of God - the beast whose number is 666 (Revelations). It could also be the Father, Son and Holy Ghost trinity, although it is unclear why they would be rivals.
The four gospels of the New Testament or the four Evangelists; in non-Christian versions the four points of the compass.
Five symbols at your door
Aside from the first five books of the Old testament, the most obvious interpretation is a pentagram marked on a door to ward off evil (an upside-down pentagram has occult connotations). Alternatively (since there are Jewish variants of the song) it might just be "five for the symbol at your door" meaning the Mezuzah rather than referring to five items.
Six for the six proud walkers/charming waiters
Six men with drawn swords who accompanied the man with the writer's inkhorn (Ezekiel). More tenuously, it is suggested that the verse should be "six proud waters" alluding to the six jars of water turned into wine by Jesus at the miracle of Cana.
Seven for the seven stars in the sky
Jesus is portrayed as surrounded by 7 stars representing the 7 early churches (Revelations, Chapter 1). There are several constellations with 7 stars - the Plough and the Pleiades are examples - some of which are more visible at certain times of year and therefore seasonal markers.
Eight brave rangers/April rainers
Possibly "April rainers" relates to Isaiah 8:45 "You heavens above, rain down righteousness; let the clouds shower it down." If the theme of stars and bright shiners is extended, it could mean the Hyades (the "Rainy Hyades") which rise in April (i.e. April Showers!)
Nine bright shiners
There are 9 orders of angels; the Jewish Chanukkah chandelier has 9 candles.
Ten for the Ten Commandments
Self-explanatory - it is one of the few fixed numbers common to "Twelve Days of Christmas", "A New Dial" and "Green Grow the Rushes O"..
Eleven who went to heaven
The eleven faithful apostles (i.e. excluding Judas Iscariot) or alternatively, St Ursula and her eleven thousand maidens as enumerated in "A New Dial".
Twelve for the twelve apostles
This ties in nicely with eleven; there were 12 apostles, but only 11 went to heaven. It would have fitted "Twelve Days of Christmas" as well, but there was a need to fit some tenets of faith into that.