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Twelve Days of Christmas-for teaching catechism?

20 Dec 99 - 01:18 PM (#151989)
Subject: Twelve Days of Christmas Question
From: MTed

I just received another copy of the now notorious "12 Days of Christmas has hidden catechism reminders" via e-mail. Last year I did some research and found the catechism lessons which the song lyrics supposedly teach are from the Baltimore Catechism, which was not the catechism used at the time of the Catholic surpression--

However, it did get me to thinking that I had seen, once, somewhere, another explanation for the significance of each of the rather curious gifts, to the effect that they were elements in some tradtional pagent of some sort--anybody know anything about this?

20 Dec 99 - 01:28 PM (#151993)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: MMario

I will have to check my references, but the older versions of this song have different, sometimes VERY different gifts.

20 Dec 99 - 03:58 PM (#152064)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas

Some versions here

21 Dec 99 - 03:22 AM (#152331)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Liz the Squeak

Look at the version in the Second Penguin book of Carols, that has some very strange gifts.....


21 Dec 99 - 12:29 PM (#152463)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Steve Parkes

The French word for partridge is perdrix, pronounced (almost) pear-tree. I expect you j=knew that Liz?


21 Dec 99 - 12:43 PM (#152470)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Jacob Bloom

I understand that the older French word for partridge is pertrix, pronounced pear-tree, and that the original version of the song had the first gift as "a partridge, une pertrix."

21 Dec 99 - 12:55 PM (#152476)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: MMario

That would be interesting, except that the older ENGLISH versions use a juniper branch, or a juniper bough... Which doesn't sound ANYTHING like pear tree

21 Dec 99 - 03:02 PM (#152528)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Jacob Bloom

Seems to me the old American version I've seen had "a part of a juniper tree", which does sound like "a partridge, une pertrix", since "une" would often be pronounced with two syllables (similar to "oona") in song and poetry. Are you sure about the branch or bough?

21 Dec 99 - 03:50 PM (#152543)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: MMario

of course not. I wasn't there, just stuff I've read in songbooks.

21 Dec 99 - 03:55 PM (#152547)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Joe Offer

MTed - one thing that might warrant correction. The Baltimore Catechism was published in 1885 as the official text for the religious instruction of Catholic children in the United States. While it was not in existence at the time of the 16th-century supression of Catholics in England, it was basically the same doctrine. I don't know that there was a catechism for the entire Roman Catholic Church until the Catechism of the Catholic Church was published in 1992.
I said in a previous thread (click) that I'm sure the song has been used for religious instruction (catechesis) because I heard a Jesuit priest use it in a sermon two years ago. I've taught catechism all my life, and I'll use anything as a catechetical device. In the olden days, I even stooped to using the songs of Simon and Garfunkel - but S&G don't work with kids any more (No, I did not go so far as to use the recordings of the Beach Boys for catechism, but I know people who did). As to whether "Twelve Days" was originally used for religious instruction, I kind of doubt it.
I think there's a need for more study of the history of this song. The Traditional Ballad Index dates the earliest known version of this song at 1780. In The Folk Songs of North America, Alan Lomax says this:
In old England, this song was sung on Twelfth Night as a Christmas game of forfeits. The players sat in a row, the first one singing the first round of the tune, the second the second, the third the third, and so on, until one made a mistake or named the gift wrongly. This player paid a forfeit. The song went on and one and the game continued until a number of forfeits had been accumulated. The forfeits were then counted and each owner had to redeem his fault by performing some task. Several versions of this game have been noted in the mountains of East Tennessee, but it normally occurs as a song.
Religious? I don't think so. I'm guessing that the interpretation Zorro posted in this thread is the pious invention of some mid-20th-century American. MTed, is the e-mail you received pretty much the same as what Zorro posted? If not, how 'bout posting it here?
I'd still like to see more information on the history of this song. What I've found is pretty sketchy.
-Joe Offer-

21 Dec 99 - 04:05 PM (#152550)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: dick greenhaus

I dunno about the nature of the gifts, but I think that the number of gifts is interesting: The total (12 days times 1 partridge plus 11 days times 2 French hens etc. ) totals 364. The way it was explained to me, that's one gift for each day of the year. Except for Christmas, when we received the greatest gift of all.

21 Dec 99 - 04:41 PM (#152573)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: MTed


I should have remembered to document and footnote, since you were bound to step in on any religious question--but seriously, I really should have saved my notes, because I don't even have a copy of the texts that I compared last year--I know longer remember which catechism was current at the time of the suppression, but my recollection was that there were different mumbers of things--the fruits of the Holy Spirit and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit were different and neither named nor enumerated as such--

My father-in-law, was my resource on this, he was the perfect scholar on all things Catholic, and sadly, he passed away this last Spring--

Under his learned guidance, I learned that there are significant differences between the different catechisms-- (He also knew nearly everything about Broadway and Hollywood musicals as well as singers and songwriters)

At any rate, the Twelve Days deal seems to date back to before the time of Christmas, having been rooted in Roman Saturnalia Festival--

Here is the letter that I received this year, although it turns out that the person who forwarded it to me deleted a lot of the text--I have written to ask him to send the rest, but he is away till after the holidays--

>--------- Forwarded message ---------- > >There is one Christmas carol that has had me baffled. What in the world do >leaping lords, French hens, swimming swans, and especially that partridge >who won't come out of the pear tree have to do with Christmas? > >Today I found out! > >>From l558 until l829, Roman Catholics in England were not allowed to >practice their faith openly. Someone during that era wrote this carol as a

>catechism song for young Catholics. It has two levels of meaning; the >surface meaning, plus a hidden meaning known only to members of their >church. Each element in the carol has a code word for a religious reality >which the children could remember. > >The partridge in a pear tree was Jesus Christ. > >Two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments. > >Three French hens stood for faith, hope and love. > >The four calling birds were the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and >John. > >The five golden rings recalled the Torah or Law, the first five books of >the Old Testament. > >The six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation. > >Seven swans a-swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy >Spirit: Prophesy, Serving, Teaching, Exortation, Contribution, Leadership,

>and Mercy. > >The eight maids a-milking were the eight beatitudes. > >Nine ladies dancing were the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: Love, Joy, >Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, >Self-control. > >The ten lords a-leaping were the ten commandments. > >Eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful disciples. > >Twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in the >Apostles' Creed. > >So there is your history lesson for today.

21 Dec 99 - 04:50 PM (#152574)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: MMario

And as has been pointed out elsewhere, there were noble families during that time who were openly Catholic, many of them with private chapels and chaplains. Heck, there was at least one Queen during that period that was Catholic. Also, the "12 days" doesn't deal with any of the major points of difference between Catholiscism and Church of England.

I also believe it HAS been used to teach catachism, but "secret teaching"....nope....

21 Dec 99 - 05:13 PM (#152581)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Joe Offer

Now, that's one part of mathematics that escaped me, and gave me trouble on all those standard exams. What's the formula for finding the sum of 12 + 11 + 10 + 9 + 8 + 7 + 6 + 5 + 4 + 3 + 2 + 1 AND 11 + 10 + 9 + 8 + 7 + 6 + 5 + 4 + 3 + 2 + 1, etc., down to 1???
-Joe Offer-

21 Dec 99 - 06:18 PM (#152613)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Joe Offer

Well, MTed, the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit go way back in Catholic teaching. The gifts are from Chapter 5 of the letter to the Galatians, and the fruits are from Chapter 11 of Isaiah. All the other stuff on your list goes back to the first few centuries of Christianity, long before Henry VIII and Pope Clement VII had their little tiff in 1534, which established the Church of England.

Once upon a time, I had all the gifts and fruits memorized, along with the twelve points of Scout Law, but such things have started to fade a bit. Baltimore Catechism No. 2 says the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. The 12 fruits are charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, long-suffering, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, and chastity. Running through my memory right now, I see that I can still recite the gifts and the Scout Law, but the fruits don't sound very familiar after about the fourth one. I notice that the question about the fruits is the only one on the page that isn't circled, so maybe the Good Sisters didn't make us memorize that one because they didn't want to explain incontinence and chastity.

I guess, considering the idea of the "folk process," it might almost be safe to say that the religious meanings have become part of the folklore connected with the song. My question is, when did the religious connotations come in? My guess is 1950, give or take 20 years. The religious meanings behind "Green Grow the Rushes" and "Go Where I Send Thee" are a lot more clear. Before I agree that there are religious connotations to the partridge in the pear tree, I wanna see better proof.

-Joe Offer-

22 Dec 99 - 01:14 AM (#152771)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: MTed


If you'd like to download, the Baltimore Catechism is here, and yes, one day soon, I'll remember how to do the blue clicky thing--

The I had the other catechism somewhere, but haven't been able to find them again--at any rate, I wasn't saying that the things I mentioned weren't part of teachings, I was just giving them as examples of what may have varied from one catechism to another--I am not even sure exactly which items it was--

At any rate, someone else mentioned somewhere that Christmas was made illegal by the puritans for a time, which meant that singing a christmas song would have gotten you in as much trouble as anything else--

And if, as someone mentioned, the roots of the song are French, then it shoots the arguement there, as well..

22 Dec 99 - 03:24 AM (#152802)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Steve Parkes

Have a look here for a different slant!

22 Dec 99 - 03:35 AM (#152808)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Steve Parkes

OK Joe, just to start you off ... to find the sum of a string od consecutive numbers, add the first to the last, halve it, and multiply by the number of numbers. For example: 1, 2, 3 -- 1+3=4; 4/2=2; 2*3=6. And again: 100 .. 200 -- 100+200=300; 300/2=150; 150*101 (yes, count 'em!) = 15,150.

Now you can have a bash at the next bit!

Steve, BA (Open)

22 Dec 99 - 03:41 AM (#152810)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Liz the Squeak

Oh just sing the bloody song and enjoy it!

My version has bulls a roaring - papal bulls perhaps??!


22 Dec 99 - 12:52 PM (#152951)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: MTed

There is a good summary of the debunkings of this thing here:

One of the points that it makes, was that in one of the earliest printed(English) versions, it is presented as a memory and forfeit song, which would account for there being so many versions, with so many different gifts--

Also mentioned is an old song, "A New Dial" or "In Those Twelve Days" which actually lists the Beatitudes, etc.

25 Dec 99 - 06:29 PM (#154148)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Penny S.

On the hidden teachings suggestion - a book has recently been published on the history of English gardens with a chapter on Catholic gardens (shades of Mary, Mary, quite contrary). Here there is written evidence for cryptic plantings in the diary of an imprisoned Catholic, and what was encrypted, as might have been predicted, was the knowledge of Marian holy days, saint's days no longer celebrated, and practices associated with them, in other words, what is different from Protestantism, which the suggested meanings do not record.

Mathematically, the gifts build up as the sequence of triangular numbers, 1, 3, 6, 10...78, and the cumulative total as the sums of these numbers, 1,4,10,20...364, so the nearness to the number of days in a year, derived from the number of months, is an accident of number. If you draw out a table to show the gifts, especially one with the cumulative totals, there's a lot of mathematics, including square numbers, to be discovered. You could, of course, find the same things from a stack of baked bean tins... but not have so much fun.

Happy counting, Penny

25 Dec 99 - 06:31 PM (#154149)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Penny S.

Also BA (Open)

28 Dec 99 - 01:05 PM (#154843)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: MTed

What is the name of the book on gardens? Even reference this hidden text is suspect, for the simple reason that, as pointed out above, there was a political, not doctrinal split between England and Rome, and even to this day, the rituals and doctrine are often undistinguishable to to untrained eye--

28 Dec 99 - 01:13 PM (#154847)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: MMario

However, I can see a Catholic - or more correctly (from my point of view) a Roman Catholic (being as I hold myself to be Anglican Catholic) designing and planting such a garden in Elizabethan or Stuart England with the hidden meanings as mentioned above, as those ARE the major iffences....and it would be a way of displaying allegience without political suicide....

28 Dec 99 - 03:15 PM (#154899)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: MTed

I really can't go through the whole history thing--it is outlined at the site I mentioned above, but there does not seem to have been an extended period of time when it would have been necessary to conceal the faith--

There certainly may have been tradtional garden figures that had religious meanings associated with them--as is the case with much that is traditional, the original meanings are long forgotten--

However, the problem we have here is that none of us knows what the book actually had to say--whether it quoted real text, or, as is often the case, it made a passing mention of an otherwise unexplored facet of gardening--

As an occasional student of the history of the occult, I have heard and read all sorts of claims about secret meaning of signs and figures, hidden messages, and, of course, related political intrigues.

Almost anything could be true, evidence for these sort of things is often weak--that is, it doen't really quite say all that it's presenters say it does--their response is that everything was secret and clandestine, so that there wouldn't be any really substantive evidence--but of course this means that there is no way of telling what is really true--

I find it unfortunate that the burden of proof is always on the person who wants to withold judgement--as in the case of this "12 Days" business, the assumption seems to be that the people who presented it (who ever they were) had to be accepted at face value until somebody (or some group of people) debunked every aspect, no matter how unreasonable that it was--

As far as I can see, there is not one bit of evidence to support the truth of the "12 days" thing--and here we are having to run in circles doing detailed histories of the relations between Rome and the C of E--and it is never enough, because all someone needs to to is say, "I saw something somewhere" and not even be specific about what or where, and we are all back at square one again--

31 Dec 99 - 05:40 AM (#156018)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Penny S.

MTed, sorry for reference being brief and obscure, but the computer has been slow and awkward, and I'm on someone else's phone line, no mean matter in the UK. I'll get the reference as soon as I can. It's recently published, with a title like "The history of the English Garden", and I posted it because it seemed to me to make more sense than the 12 days stuff. I agree that there was a limited period for oppression. However, the political became religious very quickly, and the current similarities between High Anglican and pre-Vatican 2 services go back only as far as the Oxford Movement in the last century. A reference I can give is Edward Norman, Roman Catholicism in England from the Elizabethan Settlement to the Second Vatican Council, OUP, 1985, which indicates that at times, Catholic worship resembled that of the Methodists. It's a very eye-opening read.


31 Dec 99 - 07:31 AM (#156031)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Penny S.

No luck so far with the reference - it's the sort of book which will have been sold as Christmas presents - I'll try again next week. There was a program on BBC radio which referred to it, and I then browsed the book to check up on its suggestions. I was satisfied that there was something in it, but not perhaps as much as the writer had indicated on the radio. There are only a few existing traces of the garden designs referred to, and there may have been an eagerness to extend them beyond what that evidence would sustain. There is something interesting about the idea of someone imprisoned for recusancy writing instructions, in clear, for plantings to aid recall of Catholic feast days, which might need further investigation. However, the cryptic ideas fitted the thinking of the period, and it was the right period for there to be a need for caution.

There is a tendency in the history of denominations to look only at the history relevant to one's own tradition. What is important to remember in the history of religion in England is that once the political move had been taken, the lid was off, and people began to be Dissenters of all sorts. It wasn't just Catholicism and Anglicanism, and it never will be again. It doesn't matter how alike the services are in RC and Cof E churches, that is not all that can be said about Christianity in England. In Lewes, for example, near to Tom Paine's house, is the Unitarian Chapel, with a notice proclaiming how its congregation was active in working for Catholic emancipation in the last century. The Unitarians are now barred, even from observer status, from Churches Together in England. It's not that simple over here.


31 Dec 99 - 10:02 AM (#156062)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: T in Oklahoma (Okiemockbird)

Now I shall tell all!

Methodism was founded by Saint Methodius!

The saxophone was invented by Saxo Grammaticus!

Seriously: this thread is putting out shoots in a number of interesting directions. Whatever may be the case for this particular song, the history of religion, festivals, and merry-making in the British Isles certainly correlates to trends in other areas of culture, such as music. A thread on this topic might be interesting, and well-received.

And there have been, in the English-speaking world, examples of songs used as signals or codes. Certain slave-songs come to mind. I can't think of any examples of a complex, intricate secret mnemonic such as is being suggested for 12DC, though. But a thread on mnemonic songs and verses (e.g. "thirty days hath September...") might be interesting.


31 Dec 99 - 10:20 AM (#156073)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Penny S.

If it were truly secret, who would know, except those who won't tell?

And if the freemasons' oath can leak out to the playground, what would be truly secret?


04 Jan 00 - 03:44 PM (#157923)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Penny S.

MTed, here's the information on the cryptic gardens source.

"The Pursuit of Paradise: a Social History of Gardens and Gardening" Jane Brown, Harper Collins, 1999, ISBN 0 00 255844 0

There's a chapter called "Secret Gardens" which starts with medieval monastic gardens, passing those in nunneries which may have had Marian plantings, through the Catholic gardens of the Tudor period and on to others later. It does acknowledge that it is difficult to find traces of these secret gardens because of the conditions at the time. The radio program went into more detail than the book about Thomas Tresham, and I only partly recall his history. All that the book says is that he carefully planned the garden at his home Lyveden (that doesn't look a correct spelling), and that there has been some garden archeology there. It also refers to the priest John Gerard, who used these gardens to hide, disguised as a gardener.


18 Jun 00 - 03:42 PM (#244101)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: GUEST,Jonathan Zimet

On Dec 21, 1999, Joe Offer said: The religious meanings behind "Green Grow the Rushes" ... are a lot more clear. I've been curious about the lyrics of the version of "Green Grow ..." that starts something like "Who knows one, O?" and gives something for each number, as well as possible (hidden) religious meanings. The song (which I last heard as a small child on bus rides to camp) strikes me as possibly having many analogies to a Hebrew Passover song, "Ehad Mi Yodea"-- (in English, "Who knows one") For ex, the first verse of Ehad is: "One is our God who is in heaven and earth", while my recollection of Green Grow is something like: "One is one and all is one and ever there shall be so." Any help here? (I'll post this as a new query, too)

21 Jun 00 - 07:21 PM (#245622)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Penny S.

This is where I came in, and since no-one else has pointed you there, here is a link to the DT commentary

Click here


21 Jun 00 - 07:24 PM (#245624)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Penny S.

Oh no there isn't.

Click here

And do you have the words and tune for the Jewish song?


22 Jun 00 - 02:22 PM (#245979)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: GUEST,Dodge


I produced an article on this topic some while ago, which I've copied below for your interest:

The Twelve Days of Christmas

During the period when Catholicism was illegal in England, to escape persecution Catholic parents devised (seemingly) nonsense songs to teach their children the basic doctrine. The Twelve Days of Christmas is an example of such a song.

The True-Love referred to in the song is not an earthly suitor, but God himself. The "me" who receives the presents refers to every baptised person.

The tune was not the one that is in use today. The original pre-dates the advent of harmonic music, and is modal in form (based on Gregorian chant).

1) A Partridge in a Pear Tree

A female partridge will feign injury to decoy a predator away from her helpless nestlings, and thus sacrifice herself to save them. The partridge therefore represents Christ. The Cross is represented by the pear tree.

2) Two Turtle Doves

This represents the Old and New Testaments, as these volumes - like turtle doves - once bound together are not separated.

3) Three French Hens

In the 16th Century, only the rich could afford to buy and keep these costly birds. The three things of great value represent the gifts of Faith, Hope and Charity (1 Corinthians, 13:13). Alternative explanations are (a) the gifts of the Wise Men; gold, frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:10-11) or (b) the Trinity.

4) Four Colly/Calling/Canary Birds

This represents the preaching of the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

5) Five Gold/Golden Rings

The five gold rings represent the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy - which give the history of Man's fall from grace). These books were treated with great reverence, and were considered to be worth more than gold. (Psalms 19:10). Since Roman times, a ring has symbolised eternal love and commitment.

6) Six Geese a-Laying

An egg is a universal symbol of new life. This represents the six days of the Creation. (Genesis 1). 7) Seven Swans a-Swimming

This represents the seven gifts of God's grace (Romans 12:6-8). i.e. the seven sacraments of the Catholic faith: prophesy, ministry, teaching, exhorting, giving, ruling and shewing mercy. Grace is represented by the swan. 8) Eight Maids a-Milking

The nourishment that we receive from milk represents the spiritual nourishment received from the eight Beatitudes of Christ (Matthew 5:3-10). (1) Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. (2) Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. (3) Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. (4) Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. (5) Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. (6) Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. (7) Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. (8) Blessed are they that are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

9) Nine Ladies, Dancing

Represents the nine fruits of the Trinity (Galatians 5:22-23); love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance.

10) Ten Lords a-Leaping

Represents the Ten Commandments received by Moses on the summit of Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:3-17). Lords: those who command; a-leaping: coming down from on high.

11) Eleven Pipers, Piping

Represents the eleven Apostles who remained faithful to Jesus and joyfully followed and promoted his teaching.

12) Twelve Drummers, Drumming

This represents the twelve beliefs of the Apostles' Creed: (1) I believe in God the Father, maker of Heaven and Earth. (2) I believe in Jesus Christ, the only son our Lord. (3) Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary. (4) He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. (5) The third day he rose again from the dead. (6) He ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right-hand of God, the Father Almighty. (7) From thence he will come to judge the living and the dead. (8) I believe in the Holy Spirit. (9) The holy Christian church, the communion of saints. (10) The forgiveness of sins. (11) The resurrection of the body. (12) And life everlasting.

[N.B. Biblical references are to the King James (Authorised) Version].

Dodge (Bristol, UK)

22 Jun 00 - 11:21 PM (#246262)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: bob jr

my only problem with the explanations of the 12 days of christmas is that every catholic worth his salt knows that a twelfth apostle was immediatly brought in to replace judas so i dont get the 11 one being so signifigant as the others just sounds like a stretch maybe as frued suggests sometimes a cigar is just a cigar

01 Sep 00 - 05:42 PM (#289538)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Joe Offer

Transferred from another thread.
-Joe Offer-
Joe Offer
Date: 21-Dec-99 - 06:34 PM

I'm frustrated.
I've been trying to research "12 Days of Christmas," and I'm not finding much information that sounds authoritative. I found a nice little story in a book by Alan Lomax, but that's all I ever find in Lomax - nice little stories and very few facts. I'm looking for books that have good scholarship and solid information about the stories behind the folk songs we love. What can you recommend?
-Joe Offer-

Date: 22-Dec-99 - 05:10 PM


As it is a Christian Song based on the catechism, check out the Christian Sights - I have seen it this year on a Holiday based sight.


Date: 29-Aug-00 - 12:15 AM

Well, I pulled out "Oxford Book of Carols" and didn't even find 12 Days of Christmas, but there's a version in Ruth Crawford Seeger's "American Folk Songs for Christmas" and the notes refer you to "Folksongs of Florida" by Alton C. Morris, Univ. of Florida Press, p.416; Archive of American Folk Song, Folklore Section, Library of Congress 989 A1; and game directions from "Folk Songs of Old New England" Eloise H. Linscott, copyright 1939, Macmillan, p.52

The song has a section explaining that 12 days of Christmas was used as a "forfeit" song, where each person has to sing it alone correctly or pay a forfeit.

Does that help at all?


Date: 29-Aug-00 - 05:51 PM

I started a new thread not knowing this one existed; how do I kill the one I started?

Back to the 12 days of Christmas: have you looked at the notes in the Oxford book of carols? I can't recall off the top of my head exactly what is said, but for most of the carols in the book, the notes take up nearly as much room as the words and music, so I imagine they will have something to say about it.



Date: 30-Aug-00 - 12:07 PM

The thread is immortal and now so are you. Welcome! The best version of the Twelve days Of Christmas I ever saw was in Playboy back in the 70s. it starts with the usual and ends up with a lawsuit. My favorite line "The lords are leaping all over those slutty milk maids while the cows are shitting all over my carpets!" Anybody have a copy of it? Sorry for the wander.


Date: 30-Aug-00 - 05:51 PM

Shop: GOLDEN RING , NEIGHBORS , O Death , Turtle Dove

I got this one. Don't know the source. LANGUAGE WARNING - not for delicate ears (or eyes or whatever).

The TRUE Story of the 12 days of Christmas

December 25, 1972

My Dearest Darling John: Who ever in the whole wide world would dream of getting a real partridge perched beautifully in a lovely pear tree for Christmas? How can I ever express my pleasure? Thank you a hundred times for thinking of me this way.

My Love Always, Agnes


December 26, 1972

Dearest John: Today the postman brought your very sweet gift. Just imagine: two turtle doves. I'm just delighted at your very thoughtful gift. They are just adorable.

All My Love, Agnes


December 27, 1972

Dear John: Oh! Aren't you the extravagant one! Now I must protest. I don't deserve such generosity. Three French hens! They are just darling, but I must insist, you've been too kind.

All my love, Agnes


December 28, 1972

Dear John: Today the postman delivered four calling birds. Now really, they are beautiful, but don't you think enough is enough? You are being too romantic.

Affectionately, Agnes


December 29, 1972

Dearest John: What a surprise!!! Today the postman delivered five golden rings - one for every finger! You're just impossible, but I love it. Frankly, all those birds squawking were beginning to get on my nerves.

All my love, Agnes


December 30, 1972

Dear John: When I opened the door today there were actually six geese laying on my front steps. So you're back to the birds again, huh? These geese are huge. Where will I ever keep them? The neighbors are complaining and I can't sleep through the racket. Please stop.

Cordially, Agnes


December 31, 1972

John: What's with you and these freaking birds? Seven swimming swans? What kind of damn joke is this? There's bird poop all over the house and the noise never stops. I can't sleep at night and I'm a nervous wreck. It's not funny. Stop with the friggin birds.

Sincerely, Agnes


January 1, 1973

OK Buster: I think I prefer the birds. What the hell am I going to do with 8 milking maids? It's not enough with all those birds and 8 friggin milking maids, but they had to bring their damn cows. There is manure all over the lawn and I can't move in my own house. Just lay off me smartass.



January 2, 1973

Hey Shithead: What are you, some kind of sadist? Now there's nine pipers playing. And Christ do they play. They haven't stopped chasing those maids since they got here yesterday morning. The cows are getting upset and they're stepping all over those screeching birds. What the hell am I supposed to do? The neighbors have started a petition to evict me.

You'll get yours. Agnes


January 3, 1973

You rotten prick: Now I've got 10 ladies dancing in my living room. I don't know why I call those sluts ladies. They've been balling those pipers all night long. Now the cows can't sleep and they've all got diarrhea. My living room is a river of shit. The Commissioner if Buildings has subpeonaed me to give cause why the building shouldn't be condemned. I'm calling the police on you!



January 4, 1973

Listen Fuckhead: What is wrong with you??? ELEVEN lords? They're leaping all over the milking maids and the slut ladies. Some of those broads will never walk again. Those pipers ran through the maids and have been committing sodomy with the cows. All twenty-three of the birds are dead. They've been trampled and/or squashed to death in the orgy. They smell of decaying poulty hangs in the air and all my furniture is covered in feathers. I hope you're satisfied you rotten vicious swine.

Your sworn enemy, Agnes


January 5, 1973

This is to acknowledge your latest gift of twelve fiddlers fiddling which you have seen fit to inflict on our client Miss Agnes McHolstein. The destruction, of course, was total. All correspondence should come to our attention. If you should attempt to reach Miss McHolstein at Happy Dale Sanitarium, the attendants have been instructed to shoot you on sight. With this letter please find attached a warrant for your arrest.

Law Offices of Badger, Bender, & Chole

02 Sep 00 - 03:18 AM (#289814)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Liz the Squeak

HAAAAA love the reply, often thought he was a bit of a tit..... imagine giving the one you love 19 other women and a whole bunch of birds.....!

Shall never sing it again, without smirking!


02 Sep 00 - 07:51 AM (#289846)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: George Seto -

Joe. Have you looked at

12 days of Christmas
Origins of 12 days of Christmas
12 Days of Christmas
How Stuff Works #17
12 Days of Christmas Book
Catholic Information Network

03 Sep 00 - 07:51 AM (#290239)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Penny S.

Let's get this right. It was not illegal to be or to practice Roman Catholicism in the UK up to 1829. Catholic Emancipation allowed full citizenship, ie holding of offices, attending university etc to Catholics. Catholics could attend Mass at embassy chapels, which were large and ornate. They could hold masses in private rooms - pub room services may have been in locked rooms for the same reason that Midnight Communion in the CofE church in Dover was done behind locked doors at New Year. There were nuns (I can't remember about monks and friars) from the late seventeenth century. Catholic need for hiding was a period of some 150 years from the time when the then pope proclaimed that it would be a good deed to assist Elizabeth I to enter the next life. Even then, there were court Catholics, such as the Norfolks, who were hardly hidden.

The reference I gave above, written by a Catholic, goes into more detail. Edward Norman, "Roman Catholicism in England from the Elizabethan Settlement to the Second Vatican Council", OUP, 1985, and is eye-opening.

I suspect that what has happened is that information from Ireland, the chief source of modern RC priests, where things were very different, has been superimposed on the English experience, which was not of such suppression, though there were wrongs, chiefly of differential taxation.

There was only a need of hiding things during the Commonwealth, when the last place you would hide doctrine would be in a secular Christmas song.


03 Sep 00 - 11:21 AM (#290295)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Liz the Squeak

Besides, the Commonwealth banned Christmas for a few years, you could be punished for singing anything with Christmas in it, so you sure wouldn't sing this one!!


23 Dec 04 - 10:57 AM (#1364128)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: IanC

Hard to know which of the old threads to put this one in, but I thought it ought to be recorded somewhere. I know the Urban Myth about the Catechism origin of the 12 Days song has been thoroughly debunked but here's the British Library entry for the first known printed version.

Title: Mirth without Mischief. Containing the Twelve Days of Christmas; The play of the Gaping-Wide-Mouthed-Wadling-Frog; Love and Hatred; the Art of talking with the fingers; and Nimble-Ned's alphabet and figures.

Publisher/year: London, [1780?]
Physical descr. 24ยบ.
Added Entry: MIRTH main entry
holdings(1):All items
Holdings(BL): Ch.780/110. Request
Control number: 002507986 002649112

I'm hoping to have a look at "The play of the Gaping-Wide-Mouthed-Wadling-Frog" when I get a chance.


23 Dec 04 - 12:37 PM (#1364218)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Tannywheeler

Here's a special for you 'Catters -- Christmas present, so to speak. Every year, end of November, I try to buy at least 1 bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau. There is a special reason, and, if the question ever comes up, you guys will know the straight skinny, right from the horse's mouth. Pay attention.

Once upon a time(trans: 10-20 yrs. ago)I was watching a Boston Pops concert on my local PBS station(KLRU). Out on stage drifted Burgess Meredith, not seeming at the height of his powers -- kinda feebly. As the music started behind him he suddenly lost about 40 or 50 years and gifted us with a song that had a refrain that included the words, "...and a bay-ay-aby boe-joe-lay". It was warm, delightful, funny, and too short. Should it happen that I don't live forever, and the legend of the annual bottle of BN takes off, you guys will know: In memoriam Burgess Meredith, with respect and gratitude for the sharing of his inimitable style and talents.

D'ya figger it'll be as important as the hidden signals in the "12 Days"??? Love and kisses; eat hearty; drive carefully (some of the grandchildren on the road will be mine!); wash behind your ears; brush your teeth regularly; button up your overcoats and put on your mittens; wear your mufflers; etc, etc, und so weiter. Merry whatever.                Tw

23 Dec 04 - 01:52 PM (#1364295)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Tannywheeler

P.S. Does anyone remember George Carlin's Newsman reporting all the different phrases for armed hostilities that came out as a 12 Days parody?? Too funny.
Refer to last paragraph of my prev. post.    Tw

23 Dec 04 - 05:18 PM (#1364430)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Q (Frank Staplin)

Lina Eckenstein, in her "Comparative Studies in Nursery Rhymes," 1906, discusses the "Twelve..." and the "Gaping Wide-mouthed Waddling Frog" in her essay (on line). Both rhymes had their origin in toy-books of the 18th c. (the one with "Twelve days..." preserved at the South Kensington Museum according to Eckenstein).
Quoting Eckenstein: "The words used in playing "The Gaping..." were first printed in a toy-book of the eighteenth century (IanC gives the date and location of the book above). "Persons who are still living remember it .... as a Christmas game. "...players sat in a circle, a dialogue ensued and the answers were given in cumulative form. He who made a mistake gave a forfeit.

"Buy this of me:- What is it? The gaping wide-mouthed waddling frog.
Buy this of me:- What is it? Two pudding ends will choke a dog,
With a gaping, wide-mouthed waddling frog.
Buy this of me:- What is it? Two monkeys tied to a clog,
Two pudding ends will choke a dog, etc.
"The answer to the last question stood as follows:-

"Twelve huntsmen with horns and hounds,
Hunting over other men's grounds;
Eleven ships sailing o'er the main,
Some bound for France and some for Spain;
I wish them all safe home again;
Ten comets in the sky,
Some low and some high;
Nine peacocks in the air,
I wonder how they all came there,
I do not know and I don't care;
Eight joiners in joiner's hall
Working with their tools and all.
Seven lobsters in a dish,
As fresh as any heart could wish;
Six beetles against the wall,
Close by an old woman's apple stall;
Five puppies by our bitch Ball
Who daily for their breakfast call;
Four horses stuck in a bog;
Three monkeys tied to a clog;
Two pudding ends would choke a dog;
With a gaping wide-mouthed waddling frog."

Halliwell printed one series of answers as a separate nursery rhyme, 1842 (Halliwell's Nursery Rhymes also on line).

23 Dec 04 - 08:23 PM (#1364557)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Lighter

And the words of that earliest version are exactly those sung today except for "four *colley* birds," either blackbirds or titmice, to judge from the Oxford English Dictionary.

23 Dec 04 - 09:56 PM (#1364592)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Q (Frank Staplin)

Regarding the catechism myth, the old catechism of the Council of Trent has twelve articles to its creed, but that was put out in 1570. The "Twelve Days of Christmas" is 18th c., long after there was any need for code.

23 Dec 04 - 10:18 PM (#1364600)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Q (Frank Staplin)

Colly is an old word for black, so any common black bird could be meant, as Lighter suggests. Several other meanings for colly, but none is pertinent to the old rhyme
Some have suggested that the pear tree is from the French word perdrix, which can mean partridge, but since the original English toy-book speaks of "a partridge in a pear tree," I see no need to make this assumption. A simpler explanation is that the composer of the game needed something to fill out a line and happened to pick a pear tree on which to perch the partridge.

According to Eckenstein, in northern France, the game is called "Les dons de l'an," Gifts of the Year. The gifts start out with one partridge (no tree), followed by 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.
I don't know which is the older of the two games.

02 Dec 05 - 05:39 PM (#1618873)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Q (Frank Staplin)

As noted before, the 'original' (meaning earliest known in print)version of this secular game song is posted in the DT. A note should be added that it appeared in a toy-book by E. Pearson, c. 1780, a copy at the South Kensington Museum. (See Lina Eckelstein, 1906, "Comparative Studies of Nursery Rhymes," p. 74. (On Line)

Another early version is the one collected by Baring Gould from his aunt Cecily, 'about 1840.' The succession is:

The first day of Christmas my true love sent to me,
A part of a juniper tree
Two turtle doves etc.
Three French hens
Four colly-birds
Five, a golden ring
Six geese a-laying
Seven swans a-swimming
Eight hares a-running
Nine ladies dancing
Ten lords a-playing
Eleven bears a-baiting
Twelve bulls a-roaring.

Note- Only one golden ring at Five. The last two, baiting bears and bulls, is suppressed in present-day UK.
Sabine Baring Gould, 1889, Folk Songs of the West;" Twelfth Night Game of Forfeits. Sheet music reproduced in "The Hymns and Carols of Christmas":

Also in J. O. Halliwell, 1842 (1846 4th ed.), "The Nursery Rhymes of England," pp. 121-123. (on line)

The First day of Christmas
My mother sent to me
A partridge in a pear-tree.

The second day of Christmas
My mother sent to me
Two turtle doves, etc.
Three French hens
Four canary birds
Five gold rings
Six geese a-laying
Seven swans a-swimming
Eight ladies dancing
Nine lords a-leaping
Ten ships a-sailing
Eleven ladies spinning
Twelve bells ringing.

"Each child in succession repeats the gifts of the day, and forfeits for each mistake. The accumulative process is a favorite with children; in early writers, such as Homer, the repetition of messages, etc., pleases on the same principle."

These may have been posted before, but I think it worthwhile to have them together.
I do not have the version of Edward F. Rimbault, 1864.

03 Dec 05 - 06:32 PM (#1619506)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: RobbieWilson

I have used this song for years to teach part of the mathematics of pattern, at every level from 9 year olds to A' level coursework (final year of secondary school).

Someone earlier described the presents on each day as the triangle numbers ( n x n+1)/2.
so on the 12th day my true love gave unto me 12 x 13 /2 i.e. 78 presents.
Discovery and description of this rule is GCSE level work ( Age 16).

The next level of the pattern is the presents so far, ie the running total of triangle numbers and of course this also leads to a further algebraic formula. n x (n+1) x (n+2)/6. so over 12 days 12 x 13 x 14 /6 i.e.364 or one for every day except Christmas Day.

You can show the progressive levels of pattern in a table:
To see the table properly cut and paste it into a word proccessor or spreadsheet.

        1        1        1        1        1        1        1        1        1        1        1        1        n0
Day        1        2        3        4        5        6        7        8        9        10        11        12        n+1
today        1        3        6        10        15        21        28        36        45        55        66        78        n x (n+1)/2
so far        1        4        10        20        35        56        84        120        165        220        286        364        n x (n+1) x (n+2)/6
        1        5        15        35        70        126        210        330        495        715        1001        1365        
        1        6        21        56        126        252        462        792        1287        2002        3003        4368        
        1        7        28        84        210        462        924        1716        3003        5005        8008        12376        
        1        8        36        120        330        792        1716        3432        6435        11440        19448        31824        
        1        9        45        165        495        1287        3003        6435        12870        24310        43758        75582        
        1        10        55        220        715        2002        5005        11440        24310        48620        92378        167960        
        1        11        66        286        1001        3003        8008        19448        43758        92378        184756        352716        
        1        12        78        364        1365        4368        12376        31824        75582        167960        352716        705432        

This can be extended infinitely in either direction and is in fact that source of all mathematics, Pascal's Triangle.
You can find a general rule for any element of the table, which involves factorials. You can find the coefficients for binomial expansions (university level maths) but the only rule to generate the whole table is add the number above to the number on the left, starting with 1 surrounded by zeros.

I could go on about this topic for years, in fact I have done so , but I shall shut up now with the observation that the more I study maths and fractals in particular the more I am astounded by the level of complexity yhat can emerge from a simple starting position and a recursive rule.

26 Dec 06 - 05:14 PM (#1919380)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas


26 Dec 06 - 06:15 PM (#1919436)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Q (Frank Staplin)

Far up, IanC noted the occurrence of the "TDOC" in a 1780 printing.

According to the editor (unsigned, W. N. Newell at the time?) of JAFL, 1900, vol. 13, no. 50, pp. 229-230, the following version was obtained from a Miss Nichols, Salem, Mass., about 1800. The rhyme was very popular in New England.


1. The first day of Christmas my true love sent to me
A parteridge upon a pear tree.
2. The second day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Two Turtle doves and a parteridge upon a pear tree.
3. Three French hens, etc.
4. Four Colly birds, etc.
5. Five gold rings, etc.
6. Six geese a laying, etc.
7. Seven squabs a swimming, etc.
8. Eight hounds a running, etc.
9. Nine bears a beating, etc.
10. Ten cocks a crowing, etc.
11. Eleven lords a leaping, etc.
12. Twelve ladies a dancing, etc.

26 Dec 06 - 08:30 PM (#1919551)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Joe_F

As sung by Jean Ritchie's dad while the children were finishing up the dishes in 1930:

Twelve days of Christmas, sent my sweetheart
Twelve studs a-squealin,
Leven bulls a-bellerin,
Ten hares a-runnin,
Nine cows a-roarin,
Eight maids a-waitin,
Seven swans a-swimmin,
Six geese a-layin,
Five goldy rings,
Four colly birds,
Three French hens,
Two turkle-doves --

-- _Singing Family of the Cumberlands_, Chap. 10

I read that chapter yesterday, or it wouldn't have been Christmas.

26 Dec 06 - 08:32 PM (#1919555)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: Q (Frank Staplin)

Thanks, Joe F- One that kids will like.

10 Sep 09 - 05:54 AM (#2720467)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: GUEST,Gadaffi

Roger Jenken (featuring Ken Langsbury) sing one version of this with the line 'gaping wide-mouthed bullocking frog' which I had the impression that Ken wrote or adapted. I recorded Ken singing it with The Songwainers at Sidmouth in 2004, but with a slightly different arrangement.

The last lines go:
The dogs did bark, the children laughed,
The mayor of Gloucester he did scoff,
at the gaping wide-mouthed bullocking frog'.

23 Dec 10 - 08:38 PM (#3060395)
Subject: RE: Songbooks: A Basic Folk Library
From: TRON____

I am looking for the ancient french version the 12 days was based on 500 to 1000 years ealier, I beiieve it would be 12 plants rather than the things said today, I have found some meaningless references, but no direct links yet, someone out there must know?, please help... I do not need the french translatation of the 12 days of Christmas, that is everywhere.

23 Dec 10 - 09:44 PM (#3060419)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas
From: TRON____

all that lost time, recorded by rome and kept hidden, so we have gaps we cannot explain... so sad, to have to seach and guess when it is all written down day by day by priests for thousands of years, each in their own community and saved in rome?
To bad so sad, blind faith,...ok

05 Dec 15 - 01:20 PM (#3755931)
Subject: RE: Twelve Days of Christmas-for teaching catechism?
From: Lighter

It looks like the song become popular *in the United States* only after Burl Ives recorded it in 1951.

The art-music version (which is the one sung today)appeared around 1910 in Great Britain, but my impression is that it wasn't much sung in the U.S. A newspaper search finds very few references before the early '50s. After that they're everywhere.

The Philadelphia Inquirer of Dec. 6, 1903, included the song in an article on "Christmas Games in Far Places," had to give the (presumably unfamiliar)words, and described at as sung "in the West Indies" (where it had been brought "in the time of our great-grandfathers").