The Origins of the 12 Days of Christmas
The word Christmas conjures up some beautiful images for most of us. It’s that time of the year when the tone of songs change, when the air of festivity touches everyone around… but Uncle Scrooge. Who’s he? The protagonist from Charles Dickens’ popular Christmas read - A Christmas Carol.
Leaving Uncle Scrooge aside, I for one love this season, especially the carols. It takes me back to my childhood and to the Carol Service we had at the end of each school year. There was just something so special about singing carols at the candle lit service or going from house to house huddled together in the dead of winter, singing Christmas Carols and hanging out for the warm cup of cocoa that was inevitably prepared for the “carollers”!
Although not a traditional carol, I do love the Christmas song about the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Why this song is so great
This English Christmas song extolls some special Christmas gifts given over a period of twelve days – The Twelve Days of Christmas. These twelve days begin from Christmas day or Boxing Day and continue till Ephiphany which falls on the 6th of January. The song is written in the manner of a cumulative song. What’s that? As its name suggests, it’s a song that builds up each verse based on the previous one. The twelve verses in this popular song, each describe a gift given by "my true love" on one of the twelve days of Christmas. They are a series of increasingly grand gifts given on each of the twelve days of Christmas.
Today, the significance of the 12 days has caught on with the public and has acquired a more secular tone. However instead of celebrating the 12 days from Christmas onwards, the excitement is created on the 12 days leading up to Christmas, culminating on Christmas Eve. It’s fun to gift someone something small everyday.
For those of you curious to know, yes I did have the good fortune of receiving gifts on, (not 12) but 24 days leading up to Christmas! Why you may ask, because we celebrated The Advent Calendar, which is what the Scandinavians celebrate too! Oh the things people do for more gifts!! Anyway, getting back to this special song…
History and Origins of the song
The song which was first published in England in 1780 without music as a chant or rhyme, is thought to have originated in France. As such, there are many variations of this song in France, Scotland and the Faroe Islands. The exact origins and the meaning of the song are unknown, but it is highly probable that it originated from a children's memory and forfeit game. Singers tested each other on how well they could recall the lyrics of the song and had to forfeit something if they made a mistake.
Another likely reason for this song becoming so popular was because the lyrics were intended as a catechism song to help young Catholics learn their faith, at a time when practising Catholicism was criminalised in England (1558 until 1829). The present version of the song is from 1909, by an English Composer Frederic Austin.
As I mentioned earlier, the song is about the 12 Gifts of Christmas and I was fortunate enough to learn the special meaning behind these gifts very early in life. I’ve always loved suspense so that’s why I thought it would be a good idea to include you in this journey leading up to Christmas, where I will reveal the meaning of each gift as the days go on. Stay tuned to our Instagram and Facebook as we embrace some of the traditional practices together. I’ll start with the first gift now….
Partridge in a pear – tree
Strange gift for the first day. If you look at this from a Christian point of view, the partridge symbolises Christ who came into the world. But why a partridge? This bird is special. To protect its young from impending danger, the partridge feigns injury drawing predators to itself. So the parallel between Christ giving himself up on the cross to save sinners is apt. The pear tree is obviously the cross and ‘my true love’ is God.