You might already be getting tired of Christmas carols, but they have a long history. Here are twelve things to know about a Christmas classic.
It first appeared in print in 1780
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes cited on Wikipedia, the earliest printed version of this poem that researchers know of dates back to 1780 and the book Mirth Without Mischief. In that version, it was a chant or a poem that wasn’t set to music.
It was originally a kind of poem known as “cumulative verse”
This Christmas classic would be well-suited to being a chant or poem–it’s written in a poetic form called “cumulative verse,” where each patterned verse contributes to a longer narrative. If you want another example, think “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” “Rhymed verse may have originated in dancing and singing–cumulative verse in recitation and instruction,” writes Lina Eckenstein in Comparative Studies in Nursery Rhymes.
Some believe that it was created to teach Catholic children the catechism in a coded way–but it probably wasn't
This structure, along with other facets of the song, has caused some to believe that the rhyme was a way for British Catholics to subversively teach Catholic children the catechism, because their religion was controversial in 1700s England. However, writes David Mikkelson for Snopes, this theory only appeared in the 1990s and isn’t supported by any documentary evidence–meaning it’s deeply unlikely this link authentically exists.
There are really 12 days of Christmas
Furthermore, Mikkelson writes, “there was absolutely no reason why any Catholic would have to hide his knowledge of any of the concepts supposedly symbolized in ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas,’ because these were basic articles of faith common to all denominations of Christianity.” These tenets weren't directly linked to any celebration of the 12 days of Christmas, which actually begin on December 25 and end on Twelfth Day, January 5, also known as the Feast of the Epiphany.
The poem is, in some form, likely much older than 1780
Like the twelve-day celebration of Christmas itself, writes Tanya Pai for Vox, "The 12 Days of Christmas" likely has roots that well predate 1780. It may have been French in origin, she writes.
A Scottish holiday poem is very similar
This theory is backed up by the fact that other poems about the twelve days of Christmas do exist, such as Scottish poem “The Yule Days.” This poem includes a king sending his lady, partridges, geese, ducks, swans, the list goes on–just like the English poem.
Its origins probably relate to a memory game
“Although the exact origins of the song are unknown, it is highly probable that it began as a memory and forfeit game for twelfth night celebrations, which would have been said and not sung,” write authors Mark Lawson-Jones and Dominic Walker. “The players gathered in a circle and the leader would recite a verse and each would repeat it, the leader would add another verse, and speak faster, and so on until a mistake was made by one of the players, who would then drop out of the game.” The last player standing was the winner.
Some versions contain bloody things we’d now consider animal abuse but were seen as entertainment
Even in English, there are a number of different, less-well-known variants of the lyrics. These range from the relatively innocent–“Ships a sailing” instead of “Pipers piping”–to lyrics that reflect earlier times’ attitudes towards animals, for instance, “Bears a-baiting” or “Badgers baiting” which refers to the practice of getting these animals to fight with dogs. This form of entertainment was relatively common during periods of celebration.
Some people think the animal references relate to feasting-and Europeans did actually use to eat most of the animals mentioned
There are a number of animals mentioned in all versions of the song–and many of them are things Europeans would have eaten, leading many to interpret the animal sections as relating to feasting, writes Olga Khazan for The Atlantic. That means that partridge in a pear tree wasn't just for holiday decorations.
It wasn't set to music until the 20th century
The tune of this now-familiar Christmas carol only dates back to the early twentieth century, when it was composed by Frederic Austin. It’s based on a traditional folk song but both the lyrics and the melody were altered by the composer.
Giving someone all the gifts in the song would be expensive
It’s pretty unlikely that anyone ever received all of the gifts proposed in the song–if so, however, they would have been costly, writes Pai. Today, if someone wished to replicate the list, they’d be looking at more than $30,000.
It has been parodied numerous times
Like most Christmas carols (“Jingle Bells,” anyone?) “The Twelve Days of Christmas” has been parodied on numerous occasions. From comedian and Las Vegas performer Fay McKay’s boozy version “The Twelve Daze of Christmas” to “The Twelve Days of Starcrafts,” you’ll find a parody out there to suit every festive mood.