12 Things You Might Not Know About "The Twelve Days of Christmas"

RuthBlack, iStock
RuthBlack, iStock

Pipers piping? Geese-a-laying? Five goool-den rings? What in the name of yule logs is this song all about? The short answer, it turns out, is that many people have asked that question, and there are nearly as many answers. Here are twelve to get you going.

1. LOTS OF PEOPLE, PARTICULARLY ONLINE, INSIST THE SONG IS CATHOLIC CATECHISM.

The story goes that from the 16th to the 19th century, when being a Catholic was a crime in Protestant England, children would sing this song to profess their forbidden faith. The partridge and the pear tree was Jesus Christ, the four calling birds were the four gospels, the pipers piping were the eleven faithful apostles, and so on.

2. BUT THAT'S PROBABLY NOT TRUE. 

For one thing, it doesn’t fit the bill as a catechism song. All 12 things it professes to secretly represent—the books of the Bible, the six days of creation, etc.—would have been acceptable to Protestants as well. For another thing, this rumor seems to have popped up in the last 25 years, and then spread like wildfire, as such things do, on the interwebs, without reference to any original sources.

3. THE PRECISE ORIGIN OF THE SONG IS UNKNOWN. 

But scholars on the subject (and yes, there are scholars on the subject!) agree that it was first published either as a children’s song or a Christmas carol in the late 18th or mid-19th century. Edward Phinney, a professor of classics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, put the first publication at 1868, but it also shows up, in slightly altered forms, in Mirth without Mischief, which was published around 1780, and James Orchard Halliwell’s The Nursery Rhymes of England, which was published in 1842.

4. THEY WEREN'T ALWAYS "FOUR CALLING BIRDS."

The “four calling birds” that we sing about today were, at different times, “four canary birds” and “four mockingbirds,” and before that they show up as “colly birds” or “collie birds,” which is the archaic term for blackbirds. There were however, for some reason, always four of them.

5. AND "5 GOLDEN RINGS" PROBABLY DON'T REFER TO WHAT YOU THINK THEY REFER TO.

There’s pretty good evidence suggesting "five golden rings" is actually a reference to the yellowish rings around a pheasant’s neck or to “goldspinks,” an old name for a pretty little bird called the Goldfinch—not to the hand jewelry. And that actually makes sense, considering every other lyric in the first seven days of the song references a bird: a partridge, turtle doves, French hens (or “fat ducks,” depending on the version), calling birds (or black birds), swans and geese.

6. ABOUT THAT PARTRIDGE... 

Another rather credible origin story concerns the partridge himself. Some evidence suggests that the lyric, “partridge in a pear tree,” is actually an Anglicization of what would have begun as a French word for partridge: perdrix. The original line would have been “a partridge, une perdrix,” which, when you say it out loud, sounds a whole heck of a lot like “a partridge in a pear tree.”

7. THERE ARE PROBABLY MORE RENDITIONS AND PARODIES OF THE "TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS" THAN PROBABLY ANY OTHER CHRISTMAS CAROL OUT THERE.

Over the years, the song has been done and re-done by everyone from the Chipmunks, Winnie the Pooh ("a hunny pot inna hollow tree!”) and Ren and Stimpy, to Lucille Ball and Ol' Blue Eyes himself. In Sinatra’s version, he replaces the traditional gifts of birds with things he’d like: "Five ivory combs, Four mission lights, Three golf clubs, Two silken scarfs, and a most lovely lavender tie." In a version by Bob Rivers, a Seattle radio personality, he replaces each “gift” with one of the inconveniences of Christmastime: "sending Christmas cards," "facing my in-laws," and, course, "finding a Christmas tree.”

8. THE SONG MIGHT HAVE STARTED A KIDS' GAME. 

Lots of people who’ve looked into the subject, including Phinney, the Amherst professor, say the song probably arose as a kids’ memory and counting game, wherein groups of children would take turns singing each lyric around in a circle. If a kid messed up, he was “out,” and the game continued. In some retellings, the game worked a little more like Spin the Bottle: if a kid messed up, he owed someone a kiss (the musical version of mistletoe!). In either case, the goal was to count all the way up to 12 and back down without stumbling, forgetting a lyric, or getting your tongue twisted up on any of the sinuous bits, like “seven swans a-swimming.”

9. SPEAKING OF COUNTING, AND FOWLS...

Every December, a group of birders, amateur and otherwise, venture out in the frigid countryside and count birds in the weeks surrounding Christmas. The so-called “Christmas Bird Count” came about in 1900, when conservationist, bird-lover and early Audubon-ista Frank Chapman convinced a handful of people to stop hunting birds on Christmas, and to start counting them instead. In 1900, 27 groups of “Christmas Bird Counters” traversed the countryside from New England to California. Nowadays, upward of 2000 groups, with tens of thousands of participants total, continue the tradition, making it the longest running and most valuable citizen census of existing bird populations in America today.

10. BUT BACK TO THE SONG! IT'S PROBABLY A LOVE SONG. 

“If you think of all the things being presented, they’re all gifts from a lover to a woman,” Phinney told The Southeast Missourian in 1990. “Some of them are rather impossible to give, like eight maids a-milking and nine ladies dancing. All those ladies and dancing and pipers and drums imply this is a wedding.” In a 2009 episode of the American version of The Office, Andy Bernard, who is Erin’s office Secret Santa, gives her each item on the “Twelve Days of Christmas” list in an attempt to woo her. At some point, Erin, flummoxed by the influx of large fowl at her desk, beseeches her Secret Santa to please stop, due to injuries caused by the wild animals. At the end, Andy admits he has been giving the poorly conceived gifts—just as a cacophonous parade of 12 drummers enters the set.

11. AND WHAT'S A WEDDING WITHOUT CONSUMMATION?

Phinney says the song is rife with references to fertility (maids a-milking, lords a-leapin’, geese a-laying, if you know what I mean). The final gift—the partridge in a pear tree—is the ultimate lover’s offer, Phinney says. The pear is heart-shaped, and “the partridge is a famous aphrodisiac.”

12. ALL THESE GIFTS WOULD COST A PRETTY PENNY. 

Every year since 1984, a group of economists at PNC Wealth Management have figured out how much it would cost to actually buy all the things on the “Twelve Days of Christmas” list. The so-called Christmas Price Index indicates inflation and the increasing costs of certain goods. This year, for instance, if you were really going to buy everything on that list—which includes hiring drummers and dancers (per performance) and milking maids (per hour), and, presumably, a group of men who are willing to leap for pay—it would run you $114,651.17. Compare that to 1990, when you could get away with the whole shooting match for a cool $15,231.70. At today’s prices, a performance of twelve drummers drumming would set you back an average of $2,854.50, while seven swans will run you a whopping $7,000.

How Mister Rogers Used King Friday to Make Friday the 13th Less Scary for Kids

Getty Images
Getty Images

King Friday XIII, son of King Charming Thursday XII and Queen Cinderella Monday, is an avid arts lover, a talented whistler, and a former pole vaulter. He reigns over Calendarland with lots of pomp and poise, and he’s usually correct.

Fans of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood may also remember that the monarch was born on Friday the 13th, because his birthday was celebrated on the program every Friday the 13th. Though the math isn’t perfect—according to Timeanddate.com, Friday the 13th sometimes happens two or three times a year—the heartwarming reason behind the unconventionally-timed birthday celebrations absolutely is.

Fred Rogers explained that he wanted to give children a reason to look forward to Friday the 13th, instead of buying into the negative superstitions that surround the dreaded date. “We thought, ‘Let’s start children out thinking that Friday the 13th was a fun day,’” he said in a 1999 interview. “So we would celebrate his birthday every time a Friday the 13th came.”

Rogers added that the tradition worked out so well partially because the show was broadcast live, and viewers knew to anticipate an especially festive episode whenever they spotted a Friday the 13th on the calendar.

Speaking of calendars: There’s an equally charming story behind the name Calendarland. In the same interview, Rogers disclosed that King Friday once asked children to write in with suggestions for his then-nameless country. One boy posited that since King Friday was named after a calendar date, his realm should be named after the calendar. Then, the lucky youngster was invited to the set, where King Friday christened him a prince of Calendarland.

King Friday might be king of Calendarland, but Mister Rogers is definitely the king of understanding how to make kids feel safe, smart, and special.

Mattel Is Releasing a Day of the Dead Barbie Doll

Mattel
Mattel

Barbie may be celebrating her 60th birthday, but she she looks as fresh-faced today as she did when she first emerged from her box in the spring of 1959. In celebration of Barbie's new sexagenarian status, Mattel—the toy company that has sold more than a billion Barbie dolls—is releasing a range of limited-edition Barbies, including Rosa Parks, Sally Ride, and David Bowie dolls. Now, according to USA Today, the company is getting into the autumnal spirit with its latest collectible: a Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, Barbie.

Retailing for $75, the doll will be sold on Amazon and at Target and Walmart stores beginning tomorrow, September 12. The doll “honors the traditions, symbols, and rituals often seen throughout this time,” Mattel told CNN. Día de los Muertos is celebrated primarily in Mexico from October 31 to November 2 and is a day to pay tribute to those who have passed on—who supposedly return for a brief visit of their own.

Barbie has always been known for her excellent fashion sense, and she’s dressed for this occasion wearing a black, ruffled dress embroidered with monarch butterflies, as well as yellow and red marigolds. The Día de los Muertos Barbie's face is painted as a traditional Day of the Dead skull mask and she's decked out with a headpiece featuring marigolds and more monarchs.

The butterflies are symbolic: Every winter in Mexico, billions of monarch butterflies descend into the mountains and forests in Mexico. Because they arrive at the beginning of Day of the Dead, some people believe that the insects are carrying the spirits of the dearly departed with them.

[h/t USA Today]

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