The twelve days in the song are the twelve days starting Christmas day, or in some traditions, the day after Christmas (December 26) (Boxing Day or St. Stephen's Day, as being the feast day of St. Stephen Protomartyr) to the day before Epiphany, or the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6, or the Twelfth Day). Twelfth Night is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "the evening of the fifth of January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of the Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking."
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, each of the players 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. This is how the game is offered up in its earliest known printed version, in the children's book Mirth without Mischief (c. 1780) published in England, which 100 years later Lady Gomme, a collector of folktales and rhymes, described playing every Twelfth Day night before eating mince pies and twelfth cake.
The song apparently is older than the printed version, though it is not known how much older. Textual evidence indicates that the song was not English in origin, but French, though it is considered an English carol. Three French versions of the song are known. If the "partridge in a pear tree" of the English version is to be taken literally, then it seems as if the chant comes from France, since the red-legged (or French) partridge, which perches in trees more frequently than the native common (or grey) partridge, was not successfully introduced into England until about 1770.
This version features variant lyrics, as explained below.
The time signature of this song is not constant, unlike most popular music. This irregular meter perhaps speaks for the song's folk origin. The introductory lines, such as "On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me", are made up of two 4/4 bars, while most of the lines naming gifts receive one 3/4 bar per gift with the exception of "Five gold(en) rings," which receives two 4/4 bars, "Two turtle doves" getting a 4/4 bar with "And a" on its 4th beat and "Partridge in a pear tree" getting two 4/4 bars of music. In most versions, a 4/4 bar of music immediately follows "Partridge in a pear tree." "On the" is found in that bar on the fourth (pickup) beat for the next verse. The successive bars of three for the gifts surrounded by bars of four give the song its hallmark "hurried" quality.
The second to fourth verses' melody is different from that of the fifth to twelveth verses. Before the fifth verse (when "five gold(en) rings" is first sung), the melody, using solfege, is "sol re mi fa re" for the fourth to second items, and this same melody is thereafter sung for the twelveth to sixth items. However, the melody for "four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves" changes from this point, differing from the way these lines were sung in the opening four verses.
||On the Twelfth Day... (1955)—also known as On the Twelfth Day of Christmas (USA video box title)—is a short film produced in the United Kingdom, in which a proper Edwardian lady (Miss Tilly, portrayed by Wendy Toye, who also directed the film) patiently endures the ever-increasing disruption to her quiet household when her true love (Truelove, portrayed by David O’Brien) sends her all the items from the song. The film was produced by George K. Arthur.
- Green Chri$tma$ is a piece of audio theater written and performed by Stan Freberg and Daws Butler and released by Capitol Records in 1958 (catalog number F 4097). Mr. Scrooge (Freberg), the head of an unnamed advertising agency, has gathered a group of clients to discuss tying their products into Christmas. One attendee, Bob Cratchit (Butler), wants to resist tying his spice company into Christmas, preferring to send Christmas cards with a simple message of "Peace on Earth." Scrooge extols the virtues of making money off of Christmas, and Cratchit counters by reminding Scrooge "whose birthday we're celebrating." The piece is a scathing indictment of the commercialization of Christmas, with references of Christmas-themed advertising by Coca-Cola and Marlboro cigarettes, among others. The names of the characters are taken from A Christmas Carol in Prose by Charles Dickens, as is one of the products "advertised" ("Tyn-E-Tim Chestnuts"). Green Chri$tma$ also contains a parody of the song and an original song by Freberg, "Christmas Comes but Once a Year".
- At Brown University a Latin Carol Service, held completely in Latin, is sponsored by the Classics Department each December. At this event, the women's a capella singing group The Chattertocks of Brown University sing the song entirely in Latin. For this service, “Duodecem Dies Natalis” was translated into Latin by Eunice Burr Couch and, for more than 50 years, has been performed by the group listed in the program as “Grex Chattertockarum,” literally, the "Herd of Chattertocks."
||The 12 Days of Christmas Local Style was written "local style" with items one would expect on a Pacific Island instead of Jolly old England. "It was written in 15 minutes as three friends ate Chinese food in the living room of a Diamond Head home." So reported the Honolulu Star Bulletin back in December 1995. The song was copyrighted in 1959 by Eaton "Bob" Magoon Jr.'s Hawaiian Recording and Publishing Co. Listed as its authors were composer/real estate developer Magoon, actor/singer Ed Kenney and Gordon Phelps, then Magoon's assistant. Hawaiian Recording and Publishing Co. is no longer in business.
- Allan Sherman recorded—or at least released—two different versions of "The Twelve Gifts of Christmas," in which the gifts are tacky early 1960s items, such as a cheaply-made Japanese transistor radio. Sherman wrote and performed his version of the classic Christmas carol on a 1963 TV special that was taped well in advance of the holiday. Warner Brothers rushed out a 45 RPM version in early December. The "A" side was the song, as recorded for the TV show. An edited version of "The Twelve Gifts" was included on a later album and, in later years, it turned up on a number of compilation albums and CDs, often identified as "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Despite the title, this version has only eleven gifts. On the twelfth day of Christmas, he decides to exchange the eleven previous gifts for other items.
- Singer Andy Williams covered the song as "A Song and a Christmas Tree" for The Andy Williams Christmas Album; the song basically explains someone receiving gifts for a Christmas tree from his good friends sending them. The first five verses follow the traditional melody, while the sixth verse onward use a different melody. The list is as follows:
- All their good wishes
- Gifts for one and all
- Some mistletoe
- A guardian angel
- Gold and silver tinsel
- Candles a-glowing
- Little silver bells
- A shining star
- Four colored lights
- Three boughs of holly
- Two candy canes
- A song for the Christmas tree
||The Thrifty Spendthrift by Carl Barks is a comic version of the song that first appeared in the February edition of Disney's monthly comic book Uncle $crooge. Scrooge McDuck is hypnotized by his nephew, Donald Duck using a ray pistol, and asked to give truckloads of gifts to the person he sees in a slideviewer. Unfortunately for Donald, instead of Donald's picture his uncle sees the picture of a dog. Scrooge McDuck sets out to buy something original and is then inspired by a Christmas Card with the song's lyrics, wherefore he buys the gifts for the dog.
||Sears, Roebuck & Co. and The Walt Disney Company used Walt Disney Pictures' adapted character of Winnie the Pooh for a "Twelve Days of Christmas"–themed coloring book in 1973. It included such items as "five acrobats," "two pogo sticks," and "a hunny pot in a hollow tree."
||The Muppets and singer-songwriter John Denver performed the song together on the 1979 television special John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together, and was featured on the album of the same name. The song lyrics remain the same as the classic version, with Miss Piggy adding in her long drawn out "Five gold rings" and classic "ba-dum-bum-bum," remaining true to the style of her character. It has been recorded by the Muppets five different times, featuring different Muppets in different roles each time.
||A Maori/New Zealand version, titled "A Pukeko in a Ponga Tree," written by Kingi Matutaera Ihaka, appeared as a picture book and cassette recording in 1981.
- On the late-night sketch-comedy program Second City TV in 1982, the Canadian-rustic characters Bob & Doug McKenzie - portrayed by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, respectively released a version on the SCTV spin-off album Great White North, in which the gifts included eight comic books, seven packs of smokes (cigarettes), six packs of two-four ("two-four" is Canadian slang for a case of 24 bottles of beer), five golden tuques, four pounds of back bacon, three (pieces of) French toast, two turtlenecks, and a beer in a tree. (They did not get past the eighth day. Bob wanted to include a dozen (12) doughnuts on the twelfth day.)
- Frank Kelly, the Irish actor, singer, and writer, released the parody, "Christmas Countdown," by Hugh Leonard, as a single (1982) and on the album, Frank Kelly's Christmas Countdown (Rego Irish Records & Tapes, Inc., 16 April 1995), available as both a CD and an audiocassette. The single version reached #8 on the Irish Singles Chart in 1982 and peaked at #38 on the UK Independent Singles Charts in 1984. This humoresque tells the story of an Irish man, Gobnait O'Lúnasa, who writes 12 successive letters to a woman named Nuala, who supposedly sent him each of the gifts mentioned in the song. The birds and characters (maids, lords, pipers, etc.) wreak havoc in the house where he lives with his mother. In his first letter, Gobnait's is thankful for the partridge in a pear tree, but he gets angrier and angrier and ends up desperately insulting Nuala.
||"The Twelve Pains of Christmas" is a parody of the song performed by radio personality Bob Rivers, in which the litany of each "thing of Christmas that's such a pain to me" includes "finding a Christmas tree," "sending Christmas cards," "facing my in-laws," "finding parking spaces," and so forth. The song was released on the album, Twisted Christmas (Atlantic / WEA, 1987).
||The cast of Twin Peaks recorded a version of the song that was broadcast on radio stations across the country at the time but was only made commercially available on record in Los Angeles. Cast members Dana Ashbrook (Bobby), Jack Nance (Pete), Kyle MacLachlan (Cooper), Kimmy Robertson (Lucy), Frank Silva (Bob), and Robert Bauer (Johnny) sang verses about different items and people in the town and related to the show such as jelly donuts, cherry pies, Laura Palmer's secret diary, the one-armed man, the midget from another place, and even Laura Palmer's corpse ("On the first day of Christmas..a body...dead...wrapped in plastic").
||The Kidsongs Kids sang the song on their We Wish You a Merry Christmas video.
- The Twelve Days of Christmas (TV 1993), which aired on NBC, is narrated by a partridge (voiced by Marcia Savella). This animated tale explains "the lengthy and confusing" Christmas carol of the same name through the following plot: The bold and brave Sir Carolboomer (voiced by Larry Kenney) loves the melancholy Princess Silverbell (voiced by Donna Vivino). To win her heart, he has squire Hollyberry (voiced by Phil Hartman) steal what he thinks is her Christmas list, but what actually turns out to be the answers to the King's crossword puzzle. Sir Carolboomer enlists his squire, Hollyberry, to find every item on her list, including a partridge in a pear tree, eight maids a-milking, four calling [sic] birds, and so forth. Each day, the gloomy Princess Silverbell would chase Hollyberry away. After twelve days of gift-giving, the Princess finally smiles when she sees twelve lords a leaping and falls in love, not with Sir Carolboomer, but with the one who actually did the work, Hollyberry. Adapted from a story by Romeo Muller.
- A parody of the song is featured on the album Ren & Stimpy's Crock O' Christmas. Titled "The Twelve Days of Yaksmas", this parody has Ren and Stimpy listing the strange gifts that Ren's cousin Svën has sent to them.
- The Garfield and Friends episode "Happy Garfield Day" has a parody of the song in which Garfield lists the twelve courses of his birthday dinner that he wants Jon to make for him.
- The hip-hop duo Insane Clown Posse recorded a short version of the song on the EP Carnival Christmas.
- A Christmas-themed Fox Kids station ID featured a version of the song, sung by Yakko, Wakko and Dot from Animaniacs, listing characters from various other shows on the block.
- The 25-minute movie William Wegman's Fay's Twelve Days of Christmas presents Wegman's dogs celebrating the holidays. It was originally released on VHS by Warner Home Video, and later on DVD by Microcinema International.
- RFC 1882: The 12-Days of Technology Before Christmas by Bill Hancock was released.
- An episode of Animaniacs features the song performed by the Little Blue Bird, who replaces almost all the gifts mentioned in the lyrics with turtle doves.
- Jeff Foxworthy released the parody "Redneck 12 Days of Christmas" on his album, Crank It Up: The Music Album (Warner Bros. / WEA, 27 August 1996), available as both a CD and an audiocassette. "Redneck 12 Days of Christmas" charted several times as a single, where it peaked at #18 in 1996, #39 in 1997, and 1998, #37 in 1999, and #35 in 2000. In 2004, a CD single of this song was packaged with Jeff Foxworthy's book, There's No Place Like (a Mobile) Home for the Holidays.
- In an episode of The Magic School Bus, "The Family Holiday Special" — during a trip to a recycling plant that belongs to Murph, Ms. Frizzle activates the bus's un-recycler, taking the class and Murph on a song-filled field trip, in which they sing a parody of the song with the traditional gifts replaced by recyclable objects and "true love" replaced by "teacher."
||Elmo's 12 Days of Christmas by Sarah Albee, illustrated by Maggie Swanson (Little Golden Storybook / Children's Television Workshop) is another Sesame Street-themed reinterpretation of the song. "Three French friends, two yummy cookies..." In 1999, this book was reissued as a Sesame Street Jellybean Book.
||Natalie Cole released a version of the song, in which she began to parody the song with the ninth day, and sang the last verse (twelfth day) with the total number of gifts for each day (12 lords a-leaping, 22 ladies dancing, 30 pipers piping, etc.).
||On December 23rd, Blizzard Entertainment released the map The 12 Days of Starcraft, with accompanying tune sang by the characters of the game.
||In 12 Tiny Christmas Tales, a grandmother tells three children some Yuletide tales in Christmas cartoon by Bill Plympton. The stories include a horror-story retelling of the song, depicting only days 1–6, primarily featuring birds, who become such a nuisance that the singer decides, after six geese a-laying, to kill all the birds and later eat them for dinner, to the horror of two of the children and the hungry delight of the third.
- In an episode of Comedy Central's animated television series South Park, "Red Sleigh Down" (Episode 96, first aired on 12 December 2002), Jimmy Vulmer performs the song at the annual tree-lighting ceremony. Due to his stutter, it takes him all episode to finish the song.
- As part of Nickelodeon's Merry Nickmas spots, one segment, "The 12 Days of Nickmas", featured a parody of the song being sung by characters from the channel's animated shows, including SpongeBob SquarePants, The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, The Wild Thornberrys, As Told By Ginger, The Fairly OddParents, Rocket Power, and Hey Arnold!
- Who Is Stealing the Twelve Days of Christmas? by Martha Freeman (Holiday House, 2003) was inspired by the song. Every Christmas since Alex can remember, his family and neighbors have filled their front yards with decorations from each of the twelve days mentioned in the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas," but this year someone is stealing them one by one.
- Relient K's Deck the Halls, Bruise Your Hand, featuring the song is released, later reaching #60 on the iTunes Top 100 Chart in 2006.
- 12 Days of Christmas Eve was a made-for-TV movie in which Calvin Carter (Steven Weber) is a successful business executive who has it all, but neglects those closest to him. On Christmas Eve, all that changes when the sign on his office building falls on him. He awakens in a hospital bed, attended by Angie (Molly Shannon), an angel in the guise of a nurse, who informs him know he has twelve days—that is, twelve chances—to get his act together and achieve the "perfect" Christmas Eve, else there will be dire consequences. This movie is a mix of the song, Groundhog Day, and A Christmas Carol.
- The children's album Rugrats: Holiday Classics features a song titled "Twelve Days of Rugrats", in which the main characters from Rugrats list some things they watched on television at Christmas.
- On the December 18th broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was performed by Garrison Keillor and Tom Keith with Keillor singing the song's lyrics but with Keith providing sound effects for all of the gifts but the five golden rings (which was sung traditionally by a choir and by the audience).
- On December 24th, LoadingReadyRun (LRR) released the video, 2004 Holiday Special, which featured "The Twelve Geeky Days of Christmas," as sung by the LRR crew, in which the gifts relate to computers and video games. This parody was written by Graham Stark and Paul Saunders.
- The First Day of Winter by Denise Fleming (Henry Holt & Co., 2005) is a riff on the song. It is narrated by a snowman, who receives all sorts of wintry necessities for the first 10 days of winter, beginning on December 21. It was named a Kirkus Reviews Best Children's Book for 2005.
- In her act, Las Vegas entertainer Fay McKay performed "The Twelve Daze of Christmas," with a different alcoholic drink for nearly each day. She started the song sounding sober and ending up sounding extremely inebriated and disoriented. She performed this parody of the song throughout her career, which began in 1951, but it was not until 2005 that a film of her performing the song was first released as part of the documentary, Lost Vegas: The Lounge Era.
||Twisted Sister made a parody named "Heavy Metal Christmas" in their album A Twisted Christmas.
||A YouTube viral video of the song by the undergraduate a cappella group Straight No Chaser included the group's failure to be able to count the 12 days, and interspersed snippets of other songs including "The Dreidel Song" and Toto's "Africa."
- A "12 Days of Christmas Sing Along" was released by DreamWorks as a bonus feature extra on the Shrek the Halls DVD. The short film employs footage from The Madagascar Penguins in A Christmas Caper. The list is as follows:
- Twelve zoosters singing
- Eleven higher mammels
- Ten shoppers shopping
- Nine teeth a chomping
- Eight flippers flapping
- Seven lemurs leaping
- Six fossas fussing
- Five peppermints
- Four wacky penguins
- Three wrapped fish
- Two crazy camels
- A penguin who made a loud squeak
- A program hosted by Tom Arnold, The 12 Days of Redneck Christmas, which takes a look at Christmas traditions, premiered on CMT in 2008. The theme music is the song.
- A Piñata in a Pine Tree: A Latino Twelve Days of Christmas, by Pat Mora (Clarion Books, September 2009), provides a festive Latino twist on the song, populating it with piñatas in place of partridges, plus burritos bailando (dancing donkeys), lunitas cantando (singing moons), and much more. In this version, a little girl receives gifts from a secret amiga, whose identity is a sweet surprise at the book's conclusion. There are things to find and count in Spanish on every page, with pronunciations provided right in the pictures and a glossary and music following the story.
- In The Office episode Secret Santa, Andy Bernard gives his crush, Erin Hannon, a literal series of gifts following the lyrics of the carol. She is not happy and addresses to the office whoever is her Secret Santa should stop giving these gifts because of injuries caused by the wild animals. It concludes with Andy admitting it was he who sent the anonymous gifts leading a parade of twelve marching drummers.
- The Simpsons couch gag for the episode "Pranks and Greens" had a modified version of this song.
- TV commercials for Best Buy and the iPhone 3G sang the song with modified lyrics.
- The album Phineas and Ferb Holiday Favorites has a version in which the cast of the animated series Phineas and Ferb list the things they want Santa Claus to bring them. Over the course of the song, Dr. Doofenshmirtz gradually tries to change his wish, and Candace gets increasingly frustrated with not receiving hers (her brothers getting busted), eventually shouting "Ah, forget it!" at the end of the song. The list is as follows:
- One line of dialogue (Ferb)
- Her own set of wheels (Vanessa)
- A job that pays him money (Carl)
- His platypus chirp (Perry)
- Promotion to colonel (Monogram)
- More nerds to bully (Buford)
- A kiss from a girl (Baljeet)
- A silver guitar (Jeremy)
- A sash full of patches (Isabella)
- Two busted brothers (Candace)
- A jet powered rocket ski (Phineas)
- In The Simpsons episode "The Fight Before Christmas," the Simpson family (depicted as Muppets), accompanied by guest star Katy Perry sing "The 39 Days of Christmas."
- In the Big Time Rush episode "Big Time Christmas", they sing a version of the song with Snoop Dogg.
The album Barbie: A Perfect Christmas covers this song as "A Barbie 12 Days of Christmas".
A group of British truck drivers who work for the Stobart Group recorded a version of the song under the name Eddie Stobart Truckers with variations of the lyrics.
The song is parodied by Andrea Libman as Pinkie Pie for the digital album "It's a Pony Kind of Christmas". The list is as follows:
- Twelve candy apples
- Twelve candy apples
- Eleven rubber chickens
- Ten gifts for Gummy
- Nine drums a-drumming
- Eight clowns a-clowning
- Seven rocks a-rolling
- Six streamers streaming
- Five cherrychangas
- Four pink balloons
- Three cupcakes
- Two party cannons
- A big bowl of ravioli