What the 12 Days of Christmas Are Really All About

Could it be plans for a holiday feast—or a wedding?


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The longest (and arguably least-loved) traditional Christmas carol is The Twelve Days of Christmas, with its exhaustive laundry list of gifts given by a true love to the singer of the song. (Notably, nearly all the gifts are animals or people—which seems a little sketchy!)

But what’s the story behind the song? And what’s with all the birds? Get all the answers to the Twelve Days of Christmas mystery you’ve probably been seeking. 

What are The 12 Days of Christmas gifts?

There have been some variations over the years (at first, the calling birds were sometimes canary birds or colley birds, meaning blackbirds), but the current common list of gifts are:

  • Day 1: A partridge in a pear tree
  • Day 2: Two turtle doves
  • Day 3: Three French hens
  • Day 4: Four calling birds
  • Day 5: Five golden rings
  • Day 6: Six geese a-laying
  • Day 7: Seven swans a-swimming
  • Day 8: Eight maids a-milking
  • Day 9: Nine ladies dancing
  • Day 10: 10 lords a-leaping
  • Day 11: 11 pipers piping
  • Day 12: 12 drummers drumming

What are the origins of The 12 Days of Christmas carol?

The actual 12 days of Christmas span between Christmas Day and Epiphany (January 6), which historically were often a period of rest, feasting, gathering with loved ones, and general merrymaking. 

The song itself was first written down in the 1780 book, Mirth Without Mischief, and was likely a game for kids—where you had to sing until you made a mistake, then pay the price with a sweet or other token when your memory failed. But many historians believe that the song actually originated in France before transferring over to England, as evidenced by the inclusion of partridges (which were native to France, and didn’t arrive in England until the 18th century).

What do the 12 Days of Christmas gifts mean?

There have been theories around that the gifts in the song correspond to different parts of the Catholic tradition (i.e. the two turtle doves are the Old and New Testaments), but Snopes and other historians have debunked that—especially as the earliest claims of this tie-in date back to the 1990s. 

Half of the gifts described are birds (and some historians believe that the “five golden rings” may actually be a reference to the golden rings around a pheasant’s neck as well). 

But they may not have been keeping those birds for pets. A Tudor Christmas pie would have contained several of the Twelve Days of Christmas birds—it’s a turkey, stuffed with a goose, stuffed with a chicken (a French hen?), stuffed with a partridge, stuffed with a pigeon (a turtle dove?). (And that was all encased in pastry and served with other roasted birds and rabbits surrounding it!)

Roast goose remained a popular Christmas feast (think of Ebenezer Scrooge’s goose gift to the Cratchits in A Christmas Carol) and Queen Victoria was partial to roasted swans (another Twelve Days of Christmas tie-in). 

And the other half of the gifts? It’s a lot of people prepping (or performing) at a celebration. Edward Phinney, a professor of classics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, points out that the song is really a love story. “If you think of all the things being presented, they’re all gifts from a lover to a woman,” Phinney said in a 1990 interview in the Los Angeles Times. “It looks like a young man trying to impress his intended by wooing her with many gifts. They’re all things that would be useful at a wedding.”

How many alternative versions are there?

A lot—as this is a song that’s ripe for parody. The Muppets version of the Christmas carol (with John Denver!) is a classic, along with SCTV parody by the McKenzie Brothers, which gives turtlenecks and beer instead of turtle doves and partridges. And there’s always The 12 Pains of Christmas, by Bob Rivers, which chronicles all the issues with putting together a modern Christmas—like batteries not included and rigging up the lights.  

How much would it cost to give someone the Twelve Days of Christmas gifts?

Also a lot! Every year for the past 38 years, PNC Bank releases its Christmas Price Index, which tallies up how much it would cost to give your true love the full “Twelve Days of Christmas” experience. If you give them just as they appear in the song, it will cost you nearly $200,000 to wow your true love—or $41,000 if they’re given as a one-off gift. (That made Andy Bernard’s attempt to give Erin Hannon the full Twelve Day treatment on the 2009 “Secret Santa” episode of The Office especially generous—if incredibly ill advised!)

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