Education, Music

The true meaning behind “The 12 Days of Christmas”

The catchy tune explained.

words by: Natasha Marsh
Dec 25, 2021

Almost all of us know the classic Christmas carol, The 12 Days of Christmas, right? You know, the one that talks about all the birds: On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me, a partridge in a pear tree.


The 12 Days of Christmas is also a Christmas carol in which the singer brags about all the cool gifts they received from their “true love” during the 12 days of Christmas. Each verse builds on the previous one, serving as a really effective way to annoy family members on road trips: Two turtle doves, three French hens, four calling birds, five gold rings, six geese a-laying, seven swans a-swimming and so forth. So let’s dive into the history.


What are the 12 days of Christmas?

The 12 days of Christmas is the period in Christian theology that marks the span between the birth of Christ and the coming of the Magi — the three wise men. It begins on December 25 (Christmas) and runs through January 6 (the Epiphany, sometimes also called Three Kings’ Day). The four weeks preceding Christmas are collectively known as Advent, which begins four Sundays before Christmas and ends on December 24.


Some families choose to mark the 12-day period by observing the feast days of various saints (including St. Stephen on December 26) and planning daily Christmas-related activities, but for many, things go back to business as usual after December 25.


What does the song mean?

Well it turns out, the song is actually a code related to the Bible teachings. The history of the carol is somewhat murky. The earliest known version first appeared in a 1780 children’s book called Mirth With-out Mischief. (A first edition of that book sold for $23,750 at a Sotheby’s auction in 2014, but you can also buy a digital copy on Amazon.)


Some historians think the song could be French in origin, but most agree it was designed as a “memory and forfeits” game, in which singers tested their recall of the lyrics and had to award their opponents a “forfeit” — a kiss or a favor of some kind — if they made a mistake.


But most historians believe that the Christmas carol started out as a “memory-and-forfeit” game in 1800s England. These types of games were played by British school children, and the rules were simple: when it’s your turn, you repeat all the previously sung lyrics, and add the next one. If you can’t remember a verse, you owe your opponent a “forfeit,” which was usually a kiss or piece of candy.


Many variations of the lyrics have existed at different points. Some mention “bears a-baiting” or “ships a-sailing” while some name the singer’s mother as the gift giver instead of their true love. Early versions list four “colly” birds, an archaic term meaning black as coal (blackbirds, in other words). And some people theorize that the five gold rings actually refer to the markings of a ring-necked pheasant, which would align with the bird motif of the early verses.


In any case, the song most that of us are familiar with today comes from an English composer named Frederic Austin. In 1909, he set the melody and lyrics (including changing “colly” to “calling”) and added as his own flourish — the drawn-out cadence of “five golden rings”.


A popular theory that’s made the internet rounds is that the lyrics to “The 12 Days of Christmas” are coded references to Christianity; it posits that the song was written to help Christians learn and pass on the tenets of their faith while avoiding persecution. Under that theory, the various gifts break down as follows.


2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the “Pentateuch,” which gives the history of man’s fall from grace
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed


The partridge in the pear tree, naturally, represents Jesus Christ.


Are there any other versions of The 12 Days of Christmas?

Short answer: yes. Many actually.


There’s Jeff Foxworthy’s redneck version, Twisted Sister’s heavy metal take, and, of course, a Muppets version (featuring John Denver). There’s also a 12 Days of Christmas diet of sorts, which the Atlantic’s Olga Khazan attempted in 2013. She calculated the calories in a serving of each bird mentioned in the song and offset them with the calories burned by the various activities (milking, leaping, etc.). Turns out all that poultry is somehow less indulgent than the typical American holiday meal. She sums up: if you ate all of the birds in one day, including the pheasant pie, but not including all the trimmings for the other dishes, and subtracted the energy you expended milking, dancing, leaping, and drumming, you’d have consumed 2,384 net calories. That’s really not bad, considering the average American Thanksgiving dinner adds up to about 4,500 calories.


It seems even more reasonable, relatively speaking, when you consider that if you wanted to burn off your meal by just singing its namesake tune, you’d have to make it all the way through roughly 300 times — about 17.5 hours of caroling. And that’s a gift we doubt anyone would welcome. The 12 Days of Christmas is a holiday classic — and while it may not be as beloved as some of your other favorite Christmas carols, ask anyone what their true love gave them on the first day of Christmas, and they’d probably be able to sing right back, “A partridge in a pear tree!” But after hearing the song all season while shopping for gifts and attending holiday parties, you’re probably starting to wonder, what do the lyrics of this song actually mean?


Truthfully, not much of the song makes sense from a modern perspective. Why are there so many gifts? What’s a “calling bird”? Who wants eight maids-a-milking, and what would you even do with them? Like most old tales, you have to first understand the context of when it was written to truly understand the meaning.


Merry Christmas everyone! Maybe we’ll stick to singing Mariah in our Mariah x Supreme tees this season.


Photo via Smartboy10/Getty Images