"The 12 Days of Christmas" is a traditional and lengthy English Christmas carol. The song is based on the premise that the singer receives one gift per day from his or her "true love" over the 12 days immediately following Christmas Day. Each verse repeats all of the previous gifts listed; thus, one could say that the singer receives 364 gifts total -- or one a day until next Christmas, when the process begins all over again.
The earliest well-known performance of the song was by English scholar James O. Halliwell in 1842, and he published a version in 4th edition The Nursery Rhymes of England (1846), collected principally from 'oral tradition'. The song had become traditional as early as the 16th century.
In the early 20th century, English composer Frederic Austin wrote an arrangement in which he added his melody from "Five gold rings" onwards, which has since become standard. The copyright to this arrangement was registered in 1909 and is still active by its owners, Novello & Co. Limited.
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.
"The Twelve Days of Christmas" is a cumulative song, meaning that each verse is built on top of the previous verses. There are twelve verses, each describing a gift given by "my true love" on one of the twelve days of Christmas.
The first verse runs:
- On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
- A Partridge in a Pear Tree.
The second verse:
- On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
- 2 Turtle Doves
- And a Partridge in a Pear Tree.
The third verse begins to show some metrical variance, as explained below:
- On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
- 3 French Hens
- 2 Turtle Doves
- And a Partridge in a Pear Tree.
...and so forth, until the last verse:
- On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
- 12 Drummers Drumming
- 11 Pipers Piping
- 10 Lords-a-Leaping
- 9 Ladies Dancing
- 8 Maids-a-Milking
- 7 Swans-a-Swimming
- 6 Geese-a-Laying
- 5 Golden Rings
- 4 Calling Birds
- 3 French Hens
- 2 Turtle Doves
- And a Partridge in a Pear Tree.
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 4th (pickup) beat for the next verse. The successive bars of 3 for the gifts surrounded by bars of 4 give the song its hallmark "hurried" quality.
The second to fourth verses' melody is different from that of the fifth to 12th 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 12th to sixth items. However, the melody for "four colly birds, three French hens, two turtle doves" changes from this point, differing from the way these lines were sung in the opening four verses.
Parodies and other versions
- Main article: The Twelve Days of Christmas (alternate versions)
|1955||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 Twelve Days of Christmas." The film was produced by George K. Arthur.|
|1959||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.|
|1963||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.|
|1964||The Thrifty Spendthrift by Carl Barks is a comic version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" 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 lyrics of "The Twelve Days of Christmas", wherefore he buys the gifts for the dog.|
|1973||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 inna hollow tree."|
|1979||The Muppets and singer-songwriter John Denver performed "The Twelve Days of Christmas" 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. The song has been recorded by the Muppets five different times, featuring different Muppets in different roles each time.|
|1981||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.|
|1987||"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).|
|1990||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").|
|1992||The Kidsongs Kids sang this song on their We Wish You a Merry Christmas video.|
|1997||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.|
|1998||Natalie Cole released a version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," 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.).|
|1999||On December 23rd, Blizzard Entertainment released the map The 12 Days of Starcraft, with accompanying tune sang by the characters of the game.|
|2001||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 Twelve Days of Christmas," 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.|
|2006||Twisted Sister made a parody named "Heavy Metal Christmas" in their album A Twisted Christmas.|
|2007||A YouTube viral video of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" 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 "I Have a Little Dreidel" and Toto's "Africa."|
|2012||A group of British truck drivers who work for the Stobart Group recorded a version under the name Eddie Stobart Truckers with variations of the lyrics.|
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