“The Twelve Days of Christmas”


The singer's true love gives gifts throughout Christmastide, with the quantity of gifts increasing each day


An legend (passed to me by a friend, with no authorities cited) claims that this was a covert Catholic catechism, composed to sneak by the Protestant authorities.

The Baring-Goulds offer some minor supporting evidence, in that a partridge (for the first day) is "known as a bird that deserts its young" -- hence the idea of people who have deserted their faith.

Possible, I suppose -- but clearly most people who have sung the song know nothing of such things, and many of their heavily-folk-processed versions would not be suitable for such purposes (assuming the original was).

Ian Bradley in the _Penguin Book of Carols_, on the other hand, claims it's a drinking forfeit: You have to remember all the gifts offered by previous givers and add one of your own. The problem with this theory, of course, is that the gifts are stereotyped.

They may be even more sterotyped than we realize, in fact. The Baring-Goulds argue that the "five gold rings" of the fifth verse are in fact the rings on the neck of a pheasant (though those rings aren't golden on any pheasant I've seen), meaning that the first seven gifts are all birds. They also argue for a French origin for the piece.

A handful of versions of this -- that of the Montgomeries, and Gomme's "B," and Chambers -- is clearly recensionally different: The verses begin, "The king sent his lady on the (first, second, third...) Yule day." The final line is, "Who learns my carol, and carries it away." This may include *thirteen* Yule days. I thought seriously about calling this a separate song -- but the general form appears related, and so are many of the gifts. Besides, most people would probably seek the song here. But it should be clear that it's a deliberate rewrite.

There is a partial French analogy, "La Perdriole" or "The Twelve Months of the Year"; it can be found in Maud Karpeles, _Folk Songs of Europe_, Oak, 1956, 1964, p. 130. It counts the months of the year rather than the days of Christmas, and many of the gifts are different -- but it ends (at least in the Karpeles translation) with "Two turtle-doves, And a little partridge... in the woods."

We should be cautious with this song, though. Not all texts follow this format, though it appears all are cumulative. Grace Lee Nute, _The Voyageur_, 1931 (I use the 1987 Minnesota Historical Society Press edition), pp. 115-117, examines several versions of the song she calls "Une Perdriole." All are cumulative, but the number of cycles varies, and it counts days in the month of may, not months of the year. I am inclined to suspect that this song began simply as a cumulative song and was perhaps even adapted toward the English form. - RBW

Same tune

  • The Ten Days of Finals (File: EM373)

Cross references


  • John Thomas, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" [sung in Welsh] (on Saskatch01)


  1. Belden, pp. 512-513, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (1 text)
  2. Flanders/Olney, pp. 213-216, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (1 text, 1 tune)
  3. Flanders/Brown, pp. 86-87, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (1 text, 1 tune)
  4. Linscott, pp. 52-54, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (1 text, 1 tune)
  5. Sharp-100E 96, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (1 text, 1 tune)
  6. BrownII 52, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (3 texts, though two are summarized)
  7. Brewster 94, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (2 texts, apparently summarized)
  8. Lomax-FSNA 124, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (1 text, 1 tune)
  9. Ritchie-SingFam, p. 172, "Twelve Days of Christmas" (1 text)
  10. Opie-Oxford2 100, "The first day of Christmas" (3 texts)
  11. Baring-Gould-MotherGoose #424, pp. 196-199, "(The First Day of Christmas)"
  12. Montgomerie-ScottishNR 123, "Thirteen Yule Days" (1 text)
  13. Silber-FSWB, p. 384, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (1 text)
  14. DT, XMAS12DY*
  15. ADDITIONAL: Walter de la Mare, _Come Hither_, revised edition, 1928, notes to #258, ("On the First Day of Christmas") (1 text)
  16. Ian Bradley, _The Penguin Book of Carols_ (1999), #59, "On the First Day of Christmas" (1 text)
  17. Roud #68
  18. BI, FO213


Author: unknown
Earliest date: c. 1780 (Mirth without Mischief)
Keywords: Christmas cumulative
Found in: Britain(England,Scotland,Wales) US(Ap,NE,SE,So) Canada(West)