Each Christmas season (which translates to every waking moment from Thanksgiving to the New Year), I’m fascinated we still sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. I feel like a character in the Dickens world of Scrooge and Tiny Tim as I labor through the verses (ditto “Here We Come A-wassailing”). I should sing with an English accent. More to the point, I question the TDoC lyrics. What other context do we have for turtle doves and calling birds? What’s with the gold rings? Don’t we owe it to ourselves to understand more about a carol we’ve been singing for over two hundred years?
Depending on the source, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was either a) written as a children’s book – which eventually morphed into a song, or b) “code” for memorizing elements of Christian religion at a time when faith could not be openly practiced. I prefer the latter. For example, the two turtle doves represent the New and Old Testaments of the Bible, while the four calling birds represent the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The six geese represent the days of creation (“and on the seventh day He rested”), while the eleven pipers represent the faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. “My True Love” is Jesus himself. Clever, no? (see here for the full “code”).
Wikipedia claims “the exact origin and meaning of the Twelve Days song are unknown…” so perhaps we should just leave it buried in the past. But I can’t do that. TDoC is so much more fun if you take the literal approach to the words.
The title is innocent enough. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” equals Christmastide, a season of the liturgical calendar in most churches. Christmastide begins on December 25th and lasts until January 5th (the day before the season of Epiphany). Twelve days. That’s even more celebrating than Hanukkah. Fine with me – our family likes to drag out Christmas as long as possible.
Beyond the title however, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” descends into total chaos. Consider the structure of the carol. TDoC is a “cumulative” song, which means you add the previous verse to the one you’re singing – just like all those animals in “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”. By the twelfth verse you’re singing about everything, and you’re totally exhausted. Some people solve the length by having a different voice for each gift. That’s great for the partridge in a pear tree singer, but kind of sucks for the drummers drumming singer (who only gets one chance to shine). Make sure you have a solid voice for the partridge in a pear tree.
Speaking of the gifts, let’s do some analysis. Other than the rings, your true love has an obsession with birds. He or she is gifting you an aviary on six of the first seven days. Doves, hens, swans, and more. Not only that, you’re getting pear trees and God knows how many eggs from those a-laying geese. (Note: pears and eggs make great Christmas gifts).
The final five days, your true love gifts you a bunch of workers and merrymakers for the estate you apparently have. You’ll gain a herd of cows (what else are those maids a-milking?) and you’ll have a some dancers and a band making quite the ruckus on your front lawn. The neighbors may complain. C’mon, you say: how much noise can eleven pipers make? Eleven? So you forgot about the aggregate of a “cumulative” song, did you? Your true love actually gave you twenty-two pipers by the time January 5th arrives… and twelve drummers, thirty-six dancers and thirty guys who like to jump. And don’t look now, but your twelve pear trees are swarming with 184 birds. Maybe you don’t have any pears after all.
Sorry, but if this is your true love’s idea of Christmas giving, he or she is a nut job (or at least an animal hoarder). Here’s my advice: run. Take your forty gold rings and date one of those lords or ladies instead.