The question of the origins of the popular Christmas carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” has long divided carolers and carol critics alike. The waning mainline opinion is that it is merely a colorful but nonsensical ditty flung together by some anonymous Victorian nursery-rhymer. A minority of addled Fundamentalists imagine its verses to represent certain Christian dogmas, at one time employed either as a mnemonic device or as a code for use in unfriendly lands.
But modern source-critical methods of Christmas carol exegesis have greatly advanced our understanding of the carol’s true roots.
On the first day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me
A partridge in a pear tree.
In its earliest and most authentic form, ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas” was not a carol at all but a note in an accounting ledger: “On the first day of Christmas, Truloff gave to me: a pear tree.” (Some early versions have it as a peach tree, while others omit any mention of fruit. Possibly a later accretion.)
In the early nineteenth century, trees were valuable commodities, providing shade, food, and—especially during the cold, damp English winters—fuel. So, although there are no existing copies of the ledger, it seems clear enough that Truloff owed a debt to the original source author and settled all or part of it with the tree.
On the second day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me
Two turtle doves . . .
We can date this “second verse” to perhaps twenty years after the original entry about the tree. Some mischievous or imaginative scribe has changed “Truloff” to “true love,” reflecting the romantic poetry that had become fashionable in the period. This generous person now comes bearing ever-more-numerous gifts—a poignant fantasy-projection driven by the cruel living conditions of industrial England’s working classes.
Our new redactor is also the first source of the carol’s famous “Proto-Avian” period. This ornithology enthusiast slips a partridge into the pear (or peach) tree, and then adds new items in which the “true love” arrives bearing first a turtle dove (despite the fact that the migratory Streptopelia turtur spends its winters far to the south of Britain) and a French hen.
Later followers of the Proto-Avian school would increase the numbers of the birds consecutively, adding an extra turtle dove and two more French hens to the improbable bounty, setting a tradition of escalating numbers that would carry on for the rest of the carol’s development.
Four calling birds . . .
Most scholars today believe this line to be apocryphal. Textual criticism certainly reveals an anomaly: note that, instead of the proper naming exhibited by the Proto-Avian source and his disciples, here we find simply “birds”; note too that for the first time the winged creatures are in action. Although later redactors would portray their birds in like fashion, no serious carologist considers “calling birds” to be authentic. At the annual Twelve Days Seminar it consistently gets more frowny-face emojis than any other line.
Five golden rings . . .
As legendary higher-carol critic Adolf Bullman has demonstrated beyond question, in the earliest form of the line, the fifth day of Christmas was the occasion for giving not rings but golden finches: bringing the carol to a kind of coda and rounding out the work of the Proto-Avian source. How “finches” became “rings” remains a mystery. The French carological school has long conjectured that a rival lyrical community, preferring precious metals to birds, gained the upper hand long enough to make one lasting change in the song before being put down (which would explain the emergence of the Deutero-Avian source shortly thereafter), whereas German scholars think that “finches” just got smudged with a bit of gravy and no one noticed.
Six geese a-laying,
Seven swans a-swimming . . .
The Deutero-Avians take up the mantle of their forebears and produce the last and most fully realized examples of their tradition. Supplanting useless songbirds and flightless domestic animals are the tasty goose and the majestic swan. They are active a-laying and a-swimming—a clear indicator that the later Avian redactors were diverse in their thinking, not afraid to borrow from the “calling birds” interloper that their predecessors considered an apostate. It is no surprise, therefore, that there is a growing movement of carolers who reject the rest of the song in favor of this purest, most elemental couplet, containing within it the spiritual essence of what Truloff remitted to his creditor all those centuries ago.
Eight maids a-milking,
Nine ladies dancing . . .
Perhaps thirty years after the climax of the Avian tradition, we see here the emergence of a new voice: The “gifts” have undergone an anthropomorphic evolution. Strongly influenced by the era’s suffragettes and nascent feminism, the source of these penultimate lines speaks only briefly, but powerfully. Her subject is women, and what’s more, women from across the day’s full socioeconomic spectrum: from the rough-handed milkmaid on her farm to the grandes dames of London’s ballroom set. Our carol seems to be on the verge of realizing a wonderfully progressive new hermeneutic.
Ten lords a-leaping,
Eleven pipers piping,
Twelve drummers drumming . . .
But, startlingly, the “Womynist” source vanishes as suddenly as she arrived. As Rosanna Roto-Rutabaga writes in her seminal study, Lords A-Leaping, Ladies A-Weeping:
The Womynist’s brief, shining hope of imbuing XX-mas with feminine ideals—maids nourishing and healing the earth with the milk of justice, ladies offering to Gaia a joyous dance of rebirth—was shattered, as it is in every age, by the pipes and drums of the phallocracy’s war machine (p.121).
The carol’s final redactor is indeed a striking contrast, perhaps a counter-reaction, to the one that preceded it. England’s young nobles are on the front lines of the Great War, leaping from trench to trench, as the drums call them to advance and the doleful pipers mourn the millions slaughtered. Dairy maids and debutantes are the last things on his mind as he crouches cowering behind his gas mask and prays that the twelfth day of Christmas will bring an end to the madness of war.
Which brings us to the end of this study. Carol criticism may be an inexact science, but the latest “Twelve Days” scholarship strongly supports this five-source hypothesis. However imperfect, it’s certainly more plausible than the old idea that some one person, in a fit of artistic “inspiration,” just wrote the song by himself. Talk about your crazy theories.
This article first appeared in volume 24, number 6 of Catholic Answers Magazine.