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

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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 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 as 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.

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Everything You Need to Know About Record Store Day
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The unlikely resurgence of vinyl as an alternative to digital music formats is made up of more than just a small subculture of purists. Today, more than 1400 independent record stores deal in both vintage and current releases. Those store owners and community supporters created Record Store Day in 2007 as a way of celebrating the grassroots movement that’s allowed a once-dying medium to thrive.

To commemorate this year’s Record Store Day on Saturday, April 21, a number of stores (a searchable list can be found here) will be offering promotional items, live music, signings, and more. While events vary widely by store, a number of artists will be issuing exclusive LPs that will be distributed around the country.

For Grateful Dead fans, a live recording of a February 27, 1969 show at Fillmore West in San Francisco will be released and limited to 6700 copies; Arcade Fire’s 2003 EP album will see a vinyl release for the first time, limited to 3000 copies; "Roxanne," the Police single celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, will see a 7-inch single release with the original jacket art.

The day also promises to be a big one for David Bowie fans. A special white vinyl version of 1977’s Bowie Now will be on shelves, along with Welcome to the Blackout (Live London ’78), a previously-unreleased, three-record set. Jimmy Page, Frank Zappa, Neil Young, and dozens of other artists will also be contributing releases.

No store is likely to carry everything you might want, so before making the stop, it might be best to call ahead and then plan on getting there early. If you’re one of the unlucky vinyl supporters without a brick and mortar store nearby, you can check out Discogs.com, which will be selling the special releases online.

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What Is the Meaning Behind "420"?
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Whether or not you’re a marijuana enthusiast, you’re probably aware that today is an unofficial holiday for those who are. April 20—4/20—is a day when pot smokers around the world come together to, well, smoke pot. Others use the day to push for legalization, holding marches and rallies.

But why the code 420? There are a lot of theories as to why that particular number was chosen, but most of them are wrong. You may have heard that 420 is police code for possession, or maybe it’s the penal code for marijuana use. Both are false. There is a California Senate Bill 420 that refers to the use of medical marijuana, but the bill was named for the code, not the other way around.

As far as anyone can tell, the phrase started with a bunch of high school students. Back in 1971, a group of kids at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, got in the habit of meeting at 4:20 to smoke after school. When they’d see each other in the hallways during the day, their shorthand was “420 Louis,” meaning, “Let’s meet at the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 to smoke.”

Somehow, the phrase caught on—and when the Grateful Dead eventually picked it up, "420" spread through the greater community like wildfire. What began as a silly code passed between classes is now a worldwide event for smokers and legalization activists everywhere—not a bad accomplishment for a bunch of high school stoners.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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