Where Did the 12 Days of Christmas Come from Anyway?

It happens every year around the holiday season. You’ll be Christmas shopping, running errands in the car, or enjoying time with the family and then… you hear it. Playing on the radio, from a television advertisement, or even on the lips of your children or grandchildren. The familiar verses of that perennial classic: “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Whether you sing along out loud or not, one thing is certain – that festive, bouncy Christmas counting song will be in your head for the rest of the day, or for days to come (most catchy tunes do).

Have you ever stopped and asked yourself, “where did these 12 days of Christmas come from anyway?” The easy answer is that the tune and lyrics, as we generally know them, were put together by English composer Frederic Austin and introduced to the public in 1909. But, when this catchy ditty gets stuck on repeat, maybe the real question to ask is “what does it all mean?” I mean, 4 calling birds? 10 lords a-leaping? There has to be some reason and logic behind it all. Come to find out, there is.

One little known fact is that the 12 days of Christmas do not refer to the 12 days leading up to Christmas. They actually don’t begin until Christmas Day, and last through January 6, marking the time of the birth of Christ until the coming of the Magi (the three kings or wisemen) in history. And while the gift giving of the Magi does not directly parallel the gift giving of the “true love” in the popular song, many have drawn a correlation between the numbers, days and gifts and their assumed symbolism within Christmas traditions.

When you look back at the origins of the song, before Frederic Austin popularized it, historians believed it all started as a game – a memory game meant to keep children entertained. We have many variations of it today. Each round tested a child’s ability to recall all the verse chants that came before their turn and gave them a chance to add their own verse to challenge the next player.

Of course, the very specific song verses of “The 12 Days of Christmas” are not anything any of us will forget any time soon. But just in case you need a refresher, we have listed them below for your enjoyment.

Day One: A Partridge in a Pear Tree

Day Two: 2 Turtle Doves

Day Three: 3 French Hens

Day Four: 4 Calling Birds

Day Five: 5 Gold Rings

Day Six: 6 Geese A-Laying

Day Seven: 7 Swans A-Swimming

Day Eight: 8 Maids A-Milking

Day Nine: 9 Ladies Dancing

Day Ten: 10 Lords A-Leaping

Day Eleven: 11 Pipers Piping

Day Twelve: 12 Drummers Drumming

Now that we have set the mood, have you started humming the tune yet? Thanks so much for reading our blog. We hoped you liked hearing a little bit more of the background and history behind a Christmas classic that will probably be around for many, many seasons to come. Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to you all!

Check out our 2020 Christmas gift guide to find gift ideas for everyone on your list!

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