Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Twelve Days Of Christmas

What Is The Story Behind This Carol?

Select the image to view my Christmas Card To You!

“The Twelve Days of Christmas" was originally known as a cumulative or forfeiture Christmas game, a nursery rhyme, or chants of numbers. The twelve days extending from Christmas to Epiphany. (The Epiphany was the arrival of the Magi, usually observed January 6).

It was a customary thing in a friend's house to play "The Twelve Days," every Twelfth Day night. The party was most often a mixed gathering of juveniles and adults and mostly relatives. The game was played before supper—before eating mince pies and twelfth cake.

The group would be seated in a circle around the room. The leader of the game, an adult, would start by saying the first line. The lines for the "first day" of Christmas were said by each member of the group in turn as they went around the room.

Then the leader repeated the first "day" and added the “second.” This was said all around the circle in turn, until the lines for the "twelve days" were said by every player.

For every mistake a forfeit—a small article belonging to the person—had to be given up. These forfeits were not returned to the owner until they had been redeemed by the performance of a penalty.

The first day of Christmas my true love gave me
A partridge in a pear-tree.

The second day of Christmas, my true love gave me
Two turtle-doves and a partridge in a pear-tree.

And so forth, enumerating three French hens,
four colly/collie* birds, five gold rings, six geese a-laying,
seven swans a-swimming, eight maids a-milking,
nine drummers drumming, ten pipers piping,—Halliwell's Nursery Rhymes, cccxlvi.

*Colly/collie birds were black birds. Sometime in the early 1900s the word was changed to calling birds.

The same game is played in Scotland, where it is known as The Yule Days, but is carried on to thirteen.

The king sent his lady on the first Yule day
A papingo-aye [i.e. peacock or parrot]
Who learns my carol and carries it away ?

The king sent his lady on the second Yule day
Two partridges and a papingo-aye.
Who learns my carol and carries it away ?

On the third day he sent three plovers; on the fourth, a goose that was grey; on the fifth, three starlings; on the sixth, three goldspinks; on the seventh, a bull that was brown; on the eighth, three ducks a-merry laying; on the ninth, three swans a-merry swimming; on the tenth, an Arabian baboon; on the eleventh, three hinds a-merry dancing; on the twelfth, two maids a merry dancing; on the thirteenth three stalks of corn.

In Carnbresis, in the North of France, the same game is called Les dons de Van, " the gifts of the year," but the gifts correspond in number with the number of the day. They are: one partridge, two turtle-doves, three wood-pigeons, four ducks flying, five rabbits trotting, six hares a-field, seven hounds running, eight shorn sheep, nine horned oxen, ten good turkeys, eleven good hams, twelve small cheeses.

So now we know, The Twelve Days of Christmas was a game to entertain.


Anonymous. Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore and Legend. London : W. Scott, [1887-1891].
Eckenstein, Linda. Comparative Studies In Nursery Rhymes. London : Duckworth, 1906.
Gomme, George Laurence. A Dictionary of British Folklore. London : D. Nutt : 1898.
Gomme, Alice Bertha. The Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and Ireland. London : D. Nutt, 1894-98.


Anonymous Missy said...

I grew so tired of that song as a child that to this day I cringe when I hear it, no matter what version. Yes. I have been called weird.

BTW I've given you the Ancestor Approved Award at Fables and Endless Genealogies.

December 22, 2010 at 8:25 AM  

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