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.

Ralphie's House From A Christmas Story Is Available to Rent

Jimmy Emerson, DVM, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Jimmy Emerson, DVM, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

From Chinese restaurant Christmas dinners to receiving embarrassing gifts from an aunt, many viewers can relate to Ralphie Parker's holiday experience in 1983's A Christmas Story. Now fans of the beloved film—which is celebrating its 35th anniversary—can live it firsthand: As WLWT5 reports, the Parker house from A Christmas Story is available to rent on a nightly basis.

Located in the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio, the iconic childhood home of the movie's narrator is open to the public year-round. During the day, guests can take a guided tour of the house where Ralphie almost shot his eye out. The interior is decorated to match the movie's 1940s setting, complete with a leg lamp in the living room window.

At night, the building's private third floor is available for guests to rent out. The loft, which includes a bedroom, living room, kitchen, and bathroom, can accommodate six people at a time. Rates start at $395 per night, though the price varies depending on the time of year.

Whether you're spending the night at Ralphie's or just visiting for a tour, your trip also includes admission to the Christmas Story Museum across the street. There you'll find original memorabilia from the film, including Randy's snowsuit, the chalkboard from Miss Shields's classroom, and the Parker family's car.

To book your stay, head over to the house and museum's website.

Interior of home from A Christmas Story.
A Christmas Story House & Museum

[h/t WLWT5]

10 Holiday-Related Phobias and How to Avoid Them

iStock.com/mphillips007
iStock.com/mphillips007

Let's face it: The holiday season can be stressful and anxiety-inducing. Here are some phobias you can expect to encounter and how to avoid them.

1. Chionophobia

The fear of snow. May be experienced while driving through a blizzard, after an icy snowball hits you in the eye, or upon realizing that you consumed flakes of a yellow variety. Best relieved by: Staying in.

2. Doronophobia

The fear of receiving—and opening—presents. (It should not be confused with dromophobia, the fear of crossing streets.) May be experienced when you get a gift from a sworn enemy or when opening a present from an in-law who still thinks your favorite color, for some inexplicable reason, is “neon.” Best relieved by: Staying in.

3. Nomophobia

The fear of being unable to use your cell phone. May be experienced during nasty winter storms, on remote ski slopes, and during political dinner conversations with your extended family from which there is no escape. Best relieved by: Staying in.

4. Dendrophobia

The fear of trees. May be experienced when your spouse or parent insists that he or she knows how to assemble the Christmas tree stand, despite not knowing how to even work a screwdriver. Best relieved by: Staying in.

5. Cryophobia

The fear of the cold. May be experienced if you spend most of your time in New England, the Great Plains, the Midwest, the Rockies, the Sierras, Alaska, Canada, an igloo, a high-end mall, or a Siberian gulag. Best relieved by: Staying in.

6. Auroraphobia

Fear of the Northern Lights. May be experienced if you’re a member of the Scandinavian Sámi people—who reportedly consider it a bad omen—or if grand and awe-inspiring celestial events such as solar eclipses, meteor showers, and comets overwhelm you to the point that you feel small and insignificant, thusly causing you to spiral into an existential funk that eventually compels you to accept that existence may be a mere distraction-filled parade-march toward a deep and endless oblivion. Best relieved by: Staying in.

7. Pedophobia

The fear of children. May be experienced on the plane bound for a family gathering, at the family gathering itself, and as you wait in a mile-long line leading to the mall Santa. Best relieved by: Staying in.

8. Decidophobia

The fear of making decisions. May be experienced while attempting to buy gifts for picky people, whenever you encounter a sloppy winter road that diverges in a yellow wood, and while mulling the decision to eat a tweflth gingerbread cookie. Best relieved by: Staying in.

9. Ipovlopsychophobia

The fear of having your picture taken. May be experienced if your entire family hasn't been together in years, if you thought today was a good day to wear that unflattering sweater, or if the nosiest member of your family just received a selfie-stick for the holidays and keeps insisting that you “come over here and check this out.” Best relieved by: Staying in.

10. Cleithrophobia

The fear of being trapped. May be experienced if you live in Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, Erie, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and anywhere else regularly visited by debilitating piles of lake effect snow. Best relieved by: Getting out.

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