The Twelve Days of Christmas

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Most people know this song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” as a popular English Christmas carol, which gives a list of gifts of increasing value. But how many know its origin and meaning.

Origin of the Carol,  “The Twelve Days of Christmas

The Twelve Days of Christmas

The Twelve Days of Christmas refer to the Festive Days beginning on Christmas Day (25 December) and ending on the evening of 5th January. The Twelfth night is followed by the Feast of The Epiphany on 6 January, in the Christian Religious Calendar. Epiphany  remembers the coming of the Wise Men bringing gifts to The Christ Child in Bethlehem (Matthew 2: 1-12)

Although the specific origins of the chant are not known, It possibly began as a
Twelfth Night “ memories-and-forfeits” game, in which  a leader recited a verse, and each player repeated the verse, the leader added another verse and so on until one of the players made a mistake, with the player who erred having to pay a penalty, such as offering up a kiss or a sweet”. The earliest known printed version of the words were in the children’s book “Mirth without Mischief” published in England around 1780. (See Image below)


The Twelve Days of Christmas is believed to be an English Carol. However the song apparently is older than the printed version, though it is not known how much older. Textual evidence indicates that the song is in fact French. Three French versions of the song are known.

The earliest well known version of the music of the song, The Twelve days of Christmas was published in 1846 by James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps  an English Shakespearean scholar and a collector of English Nursery Rhymes and Fairy Tales.

The Twelve Days of Christmas may have no meaning at all. Some have suggested that the each of the “gifts” represented a food or sport for each month of the year. Another has suggested that the lyrics were written as a “catechism song” to help Catholic children learn their faith in the days when practicing Catholicism was discouraged in England. See this suggested meaning in a later Post  

The Twelve Days of Christmas is a “cumulative song” which means that each verse is built on the previous one.

There are many variations of the carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and some with changes in items sent. In one version, there is a change in the order of the gifts in the last four verses

Some misinterpretations have crept into the English-language version over the years as we shall see as we explore each of the “Gifts”

There have been many parodies of the song also. For an exhaustive list click on The Twelve days of Christmas  here.

A version considered by many to be the authoritative, traditional version of the chant in England appears in “The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. This can be purchased by clicking on the image below

This post gives you a brief introduction to the Carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”.

Enjoy the singing of the Carol by Tennesse Ernie Ford on this UTube video.



In my next post I will tell you about the First Day of The Twelve Days of Christmas.


Doctor Bill