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.

10 Things You May Not Know About the Easter Bunny

iStock.com/kzenon
iStock.com/kzenon

Whether you attend a church service, decorate eggs, or devour Peeps, no Easter celebration is complete without a visit from the Easter Bunny. Check out these 10 things you may not know about the Easter Bunny, from its contested origins to its surprising iterations around the world.

1. It may have come from a pagan goddess of fertility—with some help from a Brother Grimm ...

"Ostara" (1901) by Johannes Gehrts.
Eduard Ade, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While we don’t know its exact origins, some believe the Easter Bunny has its roots in Anglo-Saxon paganism. According to Bede, a prolific 8th-century English monk, the Anglo-Saxon month Eosturmonath (broadly the Easter season) "was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honor feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honored name of the old observance." Whether Eostre was real or an invention by Bede has long been controversial, but scholarship on the goddess didn't really pick up for over a thousand years.

In his 1835 book Deutsche Mythologie, Jacob Grimm (of the Brothers Grimm) speculated that Eostre was connected to a German goddess named Ostara (whose existence, again, is controversial). Almost 40 years later, Adolf Holtzmann wrote that "The Easter Hare is unintelligible to me, but probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara," and a contemporary named K. A. Oberle hypothesized that "the hare which lay the parti-coloured Easter eggs was sacred to [Ostara]."

Over the years, other writers repeated these speculations as fact, and the idea that a hare was one of Eostre's sacred animals spread. Although hares and rabbits are different species, they're often conflated because the animals look alike and are both associated with fertility.

2. … Or it may come from a myth about that goddess's bird.

baby chick and bunny cuddling in a field
iStock.com/UroshPetrovic

Other scholars, however, think the Easter Bunny originated from an Anglo-Saxon myth about Eostre. According to the myth, the goddess was entertaining a group of kids one day. To make them laugh, she transformed her pet bird into a rabbit, giving it the ability to lay colored eggs. Eostre then gave the eggs to the children. A similar myth portrays a more malevolent Eostre, who turned her pet bird into a rabbit or hare because she was enraged. But other historians, noting the lack of any information outside of Bede regarding Eostre or Ostara, have speculated that these stories are possibly corruptions of Ukrainian folktales that explained that country's practice of making pysanky—essentially highly decorated eggs. An alternate hypothesis is that Oberle (or perhaps Holtzmann) made the decision that because the rabbit lays eggs it must have at some point transformed from a bird, making this story an entirely late-19th century invention.

3. The Pennsylvania Dutch introduced the Oschter Haws to the U.S.

A nest of colorful Easter eggs
iStock.com/tortoon

In the late 17th century, groups of Christian German immigrants began settling in Pennsylvania. They taught their children about the Oschter Haws (or Osterhase), a hare from German folklore that gave colorful eggs to well-behaved children on Easter. To prepare for the Oschter Haws's arrival, German and German-American kids built a small nest or basket for the hare's eggs. Over time, the Oschter Haws character gained popularity and was Americanized, morphing into the Easter Bunny.

4. It's not in the Bible, but it might be associated with the Virgin Mary.

"The Madonna of the Rabbit," by Titian, circa 1530.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny is a secular symbol of a Christian holiday. Although the Easter Bunny doesn't appear in the Bible, some religious scholars argue that it was originally associated with the Virgin Mary, rather than the pagan goddess Eostre. Because rabbits and hares were so fertile, Ancient Greeks and early medieval Christians thought that the animals could reproduce without having sex. Consequently, artwork and manuscripts often depict the Virgin Mary with rabbit iconography, alluding to the view that both the Virgin Mary and rabbits were able to have virgin births.

5. In Australia, it's the Easter Bilby …

A chocolate Easter Bilby
iStock.com/Bastetamn

Rather than celebrate Easter with bunnies, Australians are increasingly ushering in autumn (which is when Easter falls in the southern hemisphere) with the Easter Bilby. Also called rabbit-bandicoots, bilbies are Australian marsupials with long, rabbit-like ears. Things began looking grim for bilbies two centuries ago, when new predators and diseases were introduced into their habitat. Then, European rabbits—an invasive species whose population really took off when a few were released more than 150 years ago so they could be hunted—drove them out of their natural habitat until only a few thousand of the animals remained. But in the 1980s and '90s, Australians began doing more to protect the bilby. A book called Billy The Aussie Easter Bilby popularized the concept of the Easter Bilby, and the establishment of the Foundation for Rabbit-Free Australia educated Australians about the ecological harm that rabbits wreak. Today, you can find chocolate bilbies in Australia around Easter time, and some chocolate companies even donate a portion of their proceeds to organizations that save the animals.

6. … And in other countries, you'll find The Easter Bell, Easter Witches, and Easter Cuckoo.

Two women feed candy to fish while dressed as Easter witches at the Aquaria Vattenmuseum in Stockholm, Sweden in 2016.
Two women feed candy to fish while dressed as Easter witches at the Aquaria Vattenmuseum in Stockholm, Sweden in 2016.
JESSICA GOW, TT/AFP/Getty Images

While the Easter Bilby might sound strange to anyone unfamiliar with it, other countries have their own, even weirder versions of the Easter Bunny. In most of France, children believe that flying church bells travel to the Vatican and bring back chocolate treats in time for Easter Sunday. In Sweden, kids dress up as wizards and witches rather than bunnies. And in Switzerland, the Easter Cuckoo (bird) is a symbol of the spring holiday.

7. A sensory-friendly Easter Bunny caters to kids with autism.

Easter Bunny greets a small child
iStock.com/MCCAIG

A sensory-friendly Caring Bunny greeted and posed for photos with children with autism and special needs on World Autism Awareness Day in 2017. Sponsored by Autism Speaks, the event took place in malls across the U.S., dimming the lights, lowering the music, and shutting down noisy escalators and fountains to accommodate kids who are unable to deal with the visual and auditory stimulation of a normal mall. It's now an annual tradition at some malls.

8. Famous people love donning Easter Bunny costumes.

The Easter Bunny drops eggs on the field in between innings of a Cincinnati Reds game.
The Easter Bunny drops eggs on the field in between innings of a Cincinnati Reds game.
Joe Robbins, Getty Images

While most people enjoy dressing up for Halloween, celebrities can't seem to get enough of donning a big rabbit suit on Easter. Singers, actors, and sports stars such as Mariah Carey, Madonna, David Beckham, Miley Cyrus, Snoop Dogg, and Kanye West have all shared photos of themselves wearing Easter Bunny costumes, which range from a simple set of bunny ears to a full-body white, fluffy suit.

9. Former U.S. Press Secretary Sean Spicer was once the White House Easter Bunny.

Then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer reads a book to children during the White House's annual Easter Egg Roll in 2017.
Then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer reads a book to children during the White House's annual Easter Egg Roll in 2017.
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

The White House's annual Easter Egg Roll, which began in 1878, draws children and families to the President's home for egg hunting and musical performances. Traditionally, a member of the president's administration dresses up as the Easter Bunny to entertain kids and their families. When George W. Bush was president, then-assistant U.S. trade representative for media and public affairs Sean Spicer wore the bunny costume. In March 2016, Spicer poked fun at his old role, retweeting a photo of himself with the comment: "The good ole days—what I would give to hide in a bunny costume again."

10. Chocolate bunnies are insanely popular.

A chocolate bunny
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Halloween and Easter are the two big holidays for candy sales, with Easter sometimes coming out on top (at least in dollar sales). This year, Americans are expected to spend $18.1 billion on the holiday, and 87 percent of celebrants planned to buy Easter candy like chocolate bunnies, marshmallow bunnies and eggs, and jelly beans. About 90 million chocolate bunnies are produced every Easter, which makes for a ton of mouthwatering chocolate rabbits in kids' (and adults') Easter baskets.

A version of this story originally ran in 2017.

15 Smart Gifts for Administrative Professionals’ Day

Amazon
Amazon

Without the tireless work of administrative professionals, offices would surely fall apart. This holiday, formerly known as Secretaries' Day, is all about showing thanks for their great contributions. It falls on Wednesday of the last full week of April—April 24 this year—so there's still time to pick out a thoughtful gift for the people in your office who make life easier for everyone.

1. NESSIE TEA INFUSER; $13

Steeping loose tea is a lot more fun when you can create a cryptid sighting right in your mug. This dishwasher-safe, silicone tea infuser looks just like a baby Loch Ness monster that stores tea leaves in its belly.

Find it: Amazon

2. KNIGHT PEN HOLDER; $30

With this regal display, a good pen will always be close at hand. The resin knight statuette comes with its own refillable black ink pen and works as a nice reminder that the pen is mightier than the sword.

Find it: Walmart

3. MIRA WATER BOTTLE; $14

Give the gift of hydration: These 17-ounce bottles are perfect for carrying water, coffee, or tea. The insulation will keep drinks cold for 24 hours or hot for 12 hours, and its leak-proof top makes it a mess-free travel companion.

Find it: Amazon

4. CAFFEINE SOAP; $8

Morning showers can be a lot more energized with bars of soap charged with caffeine. The peppermint-scented soap is infused with caffeine, which can be absorbed through the skin (at roughly 200 milligrams per washing) to give a little pre-latte jolt before work.

Find it: ThinkGeek

5. HANDICORN; $7

Downtime at the office can now mean a visit from a friendly unicorn. The five piece set comes with four hoofed feet and a unicorn head that fit neatly over most fingers.

Find it: Amazon

6. SOLITAIRE CARDS; $16

It's just like the computer game, but in real life! This deck of cards from Areaware uses the original artwork of Susan Kare from the Windows 3.0 Solitaire game. Kare even designed joker cards just for the physical set of cards.

Find it: Amazon

7. RETRO PENS; $10

Note taking is about to go old school with these cute, retro-styled pens. The set of five click-top pens come in satisfying muted colors that would dazzle any '60s corporate employee.

Find it: Amazon

8. Poloroid 7-Inch Digital Photo Frame; $36

A photo frame with a photo of three children at the beach inside
Polaroid, Target

This digital picture frame allows the user to upload photo files from a memory card or flash drive and turn them into automated slideshow, allowing them to fit more pictures of their loved ones and pets on their desk at work without actually impeding their, you know, space for work.

Find it: Target or Walmart

9. SHEEP PUSH PIN HOLDER; $14

At first glance, this is just a sheep with a lovely wool coat. In reality, this sheep is covered in white push pins that can be easily removed and replaced. The clever pin holder is great for any animal lover with a constant need for thumbtacks.

Find it: Amazon

10. CAT POST-IT HOLDER; $8

Here's another helpful animal office product: A cat that dispenses sticky notes. The whiskered feline comes with one pack of Post-Its and can be refilled with any 3-by-3-inch notepads.

Find it: Amazon

11. 30 DAY CHALLENGE; $12

This charming little note dispenser spits out encouraging words and advice. Geared toward self-care, each note suggests one thing the reader can do to slow down and enjoy each day.

Find it: Urban Outfitters

12. SPACE NOTEBOOK; $4

Jot down notes that are out of this world! This astrological notebook has a nice matte cover and an elastic band to keep it shut. The notebook comes with 256 lined pages for plenty of thoughts on the cosmos, extraterrestrials, or conference call numbers.

Find it: ModCloth

Note: This notebook is currently out of stock, but this pocket notebook from Paper Source is a good (and cheap!) replacement.

13. CACTUS CANDLES; $8

For the coworker who just can't seem to keep a desktop plant alive, these cactus-shaped candles are almost too cute to light. Each box comes with six candles in three different styles.

Find it: Amazon

14. HEAT SENSITIVE PAC-MAN MUG; $21

Pouring hot liquid into this mug is a lot like turning on an arcade game. As the mug heats up, a Pac-Man game emerges—cherries, ghost, and all.

Find it: Walmart, Amazon, or one of the retailers below:

15. SCRATCH OFF BOOK POSTER; $26

This helpful chart recommends 100 different classic books, dating back to 1605. Each book is illustrated and coated with a gold foil design, which proud readers can scratch off to keep track of—or show off—how many tomes they've tackled.

Find it: Pop Chart Lab

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

A version of this article first ran in 2017. It has been updated to reflect current availability.

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