The Twelve Days of Christmas – Eight Maids-a-Milking

The Eighth Day of Christmas – Eight Maids-a-Milking                                                            

Verse eight of The Twelve days of Christmas begins:

On the eighth day of Christmas,

My true love sent to me

Eight Maids-a-Milking


This seems to be a rather strange gift to send to anyone, let alone ones “True Love”

Lets see if we can work out what this all means

What is a Milk-Maid.

At the time this Carol was written, Cows were milked by hand. No fancy milking machines in those days!

Milking cows was women’s work, hence the term Milk-Maid. They were usually young, unmarried women; the word Maid was therefore a contraction of the word Maiden . They had a very important role in the household for the milk-maids were also responsible for preparation of milk products such as cream, sour cream (the equivalent of today’s Yoghurt), butter and cheese.

That eight maids-a-milking were sent by the the True love to his beloved, suggest that the lady in question was a woman of substance.


Animals especially cows, goats and sheep were domesticated early in man’s history and milk from these animals, became an important source of food in adult life.

Milk has high nutrient value and is one of only two naturally occurring substances that are used exclusively for food . The other is honey.

Before the days of refrigeration milk spoiled very quickly. The milk products however had a much longer “shelf-life”

One of the ways to slow the process of souring of milk is that which we now call “Pasteurization”. This is not a new process.

The scalding and straining of cream to increase the keeping qualities of butter was practiced in England before the 1700’s

The process of heating wine for preservation purposes has been known in China since the 1100’s. There are records of this in the 1500’s in Japan. The modern version involving heating to a certain temperature followed by immediate cooling was created by the famous French microbiologist Louis Pasteur, after whom it is named. Their aim was to prevent the souring of beer and wine.

Pasteurisation of milk was suggested by the German agricultural scientist, Franz von Soxhlet in 1886. He developed an extractor to carry out the process.

The process of butter making was very much “hands on”, for it required the milk to be constantly agitated with a wooden paddle or in a Butter Churn.

This was the job of the Milk-maid.                                                                                            

Butter is as old as history. It is mentioned in the Bible in Genesis. When three angel appeared before Abraham, Sarah his wife made bread and Abraham brought the bread and butter to the three men. (Genesis:18:8). Also in  the book of Judges 5:25, when Deborah sang her song of praise to God after the victory of the Israelites against king Jabin of Canaan.

Butter is produced by churning cream until the fats separates from the liquid (buttermilk) and the butter is in a semi-solid state

The earliest churns were goatskins or other primitive containers in which cream could be agitated. Skin bags were sometimes used by Asian nomads to turn their cream into butter just by shaking the skin bags till the butter was formed.

At the time this Carol was written a butter churn would have been made of wood, barrel shaped and the milk agitated with a plunger type of instrument or a paddle

I found a fascinating site called “Butter Through the Ages which you may find interesting.

So, Eight Maids-a-Milking was a very practical gift to be sending on The Eighth Day of Christmas


Doctor Bill

Other Posts in the Series:

The Twelve Days of Christmas

The Twelve days of Christmas Day 1

The Twelve Days of Christmas Day 2

The Twelve Days of Christmas Day 3

The Twelve Days of Christmas Day 4

The Twelve Days of Christmas Day 5

The Twelve Days of Christmas Day 6

The Twelve Days of Christmas Day 7


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