Christmas Day

The Twelve Days of Christmas


When are the twelve days of Christmas?

The twelve days of Christmas are sometimes also known as Twelvetide.

There is some argument as to when exactly Twelvetide starts. While some suggest the first day of Christmas is Christmas Day itself (25th December), the majority see 26th December as day one, meaning the twelfth and final day falls on the 6th of January; the traditional Christian feast day of Epiphany.

In Britain and other commonwealth countries, the 26th December is commemorated as Boxing Day. In other countries, 26th December is the Feast of St. Stephen. The 6th of January, is seen as the last day you can have your Christmas decorations up by many European countries. And if you don’t take them down, some people think it’s bad luck.

The twelve days also joins western Christmas Day to Orthodox Christmas (also known as Old Christmas), as that is celebrated on January 7th in parts of eastern Europe. This is due to the switch from the Julian to Gregorian calendar in the western church which moved the calendar forward by twelve days.

This period has been recognised as a festive and sacred season since before the middle ages, with the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany having first been proclaimed as such all the way back in 567AD.

The English Christmas Carol

The famous gift-giving song began life, not as a song, but as a rhyme.

The lyrics were published in England in 1780 without music, the popularity of the verses led to many composers writing melodies to accompany the words over the next 100 or so years.

The music we now associate with this song is derived from a 1909 arrangement of a traditional folk melody by an English composer called Frederic Austin.

Did you know?
Austin was involved in operas, and the dramatic flourish of ‘Five Gold Rings’ was added by him.

A partridge in a pear tree

Two turtle doves

Three French hens

Four calling birds

Five gold rings

Six geese a-laying

Seven swans a-swimming

Eight maids a-milking

Nine ladies dancing

Ten lords a-leaping

Eleven pipers piping

Twelve drummers drumming

Did you know?
In the earliest versions, the word on is not present at the beginning of each verse—for example, the first verse begins simply “The first day of Christmas”. On was added in Austin’s 1909 version, and became very popular thereafter.

To modern ears, this seems like a random and eclectic selection of gifts, some that would be better received than others.

Five gold rings? Yes please! Three french hens? Sure, the eggs would be nice, but the upkeep could get a bit much, as I’d get three hens on ten days, so that’s 30 hens in total.

But what could these strange gifts represent? Is there a deeper meaning?

In a theory debunked by the fact-checking website, Snopes, it has been suggested that the twelve days of Christmas song is a coded reference to important articles of the Christian faith.

The theory suggests that each gift represented a tenet of faith, and the song was sung by young catholics as a a catechism song (memory aid) to remember various aspects of their religion.

According to this theory, the two turtle doves represent the Old and New Testaments, the six geese a-laying represent the six days of creation, and ten lords a-leaping represent the ten commandments. The ‘true love’ is meant to represent God and the gifts he bestows upon the baptised.

While a fascinating theory, it has been dismissed as a potential lyrical origin story as there is no supporting evidence or documentation to suggest this was ever the case. There is no obvious reason why the song should be a code, though, if Dan Brown manages to squeeze a book out of this particular conspiracy theory, you read it here first.

The claim also appears to date back to only the 1970s, meaning the theory’s roots are most likely founded in modern speculation.

The much more likely theory for the origin of the song, is that it was a children’s memory and forfeit game.

These types of songs were common in 19th century English playgrounds, and would normally involve children taking turns to sing all of the previously sung lyrics, before adding the next line. If someone got the lyrics wrong, there would usually be a forfeit.

This would explain the number of verses in the song, and the repetition of each previous gift in every new verse.

Did you know?
Adding up the all presents in each verse, results in 364 gifts, with 78 on the twelfth day alone.

The Twelve Days today

Whatever the origins of the song, in modern-day money, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, if you were to buy everything listed during the song “12 Days of Christmas,” it would cost you $46,000. That cost has gone up 16% since 2019, accounting for inflation, officials said.

The most expensive items on the list are the seven swans a-swimming, which would cost about $13,000. The nine ladies dancing would put you out about $7,500.

The pear tree will cost 15% more this Christmas, but at least the price of a partridge did not change.

Fun Facts about Christmas