Origins of the 12 Days of Christmas

December 19, 1998|By MEG H. PARTINGTON

There may be more to the lyrics of "The 12 Days of Christmas" than gift ideas for bird and music lovers.

Depending on who is asked, the song is either a simple ditty used in a game, has deep religious significance or celebrates food.

The Rev. Daniel Nusbaum, chairman of the visual and performing arts department at Mount Saint Mary's College in Emmitsburg, Md., said the song was written in Sussex, England, in the early 1700s for a traditional English game played during the 12 days between Christmas and the Epiphany.

One person would sing a melody and another had to repeat it back and add something, then another person would repeat both of their parts and add his or her own, and so on. Players were eliminated from the game if they forgot any part, he said, citing the "New Oxford Book of Carols."


The calling birds were originally collie birds, or blackbirds, Nusbaum said, citing the book. The golden rings evolved from either Scottish goldspinks - goldfinches - or guldercocks, Old English terminology for turkeys, he said.

The lyrics that are heard on radios and at Christmas concerts were not published and copyrighted until 1909, Nusbaum said.

Another interpretation of the lyrics shows the various gifts representing the pillars of Christian faith.

According to a Web site called "Christmas Eternal" created by the Rev. Alex Stevenson, pastor of Latimer Memorial United Methodist Church in Belton, S.C., the lyrics were created to teach young people about the Christian faith. The site says Roman Catholics in England were unable to openly practice their faith from 1558 to 1829, so they created the song as an allegory through which their beliefs could be passed on to the next generation.

For instance, the site claims that the partridge in a pear tree represents Jesus Christ dying on a tree as a gift from God and the two turtledoves signify the Old and New Testaments. It goes on to say that the three French hens represent faith, hope and love, while the four calling birds are the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Stevenson created the Web site after getting positive response from his parishioners about the historical holiday tidbits he included in the church's newsletter. His original intent was to put the legend of the candy cane on a Web site for the church.

Then he stumbled upon a column by Dr. William Hunter that ran in the Jan. 21, 1996, edition of the Anderson Independent-Mail in Anderson, S.C., the source he cites for his interpretation of the famous Christmas carol. After he posted the information on the Web, Stevenson started getting attention and phone calls from all sorts of people, he said.

While the religious interpretation of the lyrics originated in Catholicism, Stevenson said it touches something in all Christians.

Nusbaum calls the Web site's take on the words "spiritual frosting." He said perhaps around the 19th century, people started reading religious significance into the song, but that was not its original intent.

Another take on the deeper side of the song comes from "The Christmas Almanack" by Gerard and Patricia Del Re. The publication concurs with Stevenson's Web site that the number two represents the testaments, eight signifies the Beatitudes and 10 stands for the Ten Commandments. It claims that one signifies God, three represents the Trinity and 12 stands for Jesus' disciples. Straying from the religious context, the almanac also says five correlates with the number of senses and six is equivalent to the days of work in the week.

Another look at the song is more flavorful.

"Christmas Customs and Traditions" by Frank Muir cites a version from western France in which most of the 12 gifts are edible: one boneless stuffing, two breasts of veal, three joints of beef, four pig feet, five legs of mutton, six partridges with cabbage, seven spitted rabbits, eight plates of salad, nine dishes for a group of canons, 10 full casks, 11 bosomy maidens and 12 musketeers with their swords.

The 12 Days - A religious interpretation

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