The 12 days of Christmas

by Bea Toews

No one really knows where the 12 days of Christmas song originated. Many people know that the first day of Christmas is Christmas Day and the last day is the day the Magi arrived in Bethlehem.

One popular theory about the song is that the items in the song are a code for Christianity. Another is that the song evolved as a forfeit song – if you forget the words you have to perform some task. 

Should you have forgotten the items that the recipient was gifted, here they are, with the total number of items they would have to accept.

12 x 1 = 12 partridges in pear trees

11 x 2 = 22 turtle doves.

10 x 3 = 30 French hens.

9 x 4 = 36 calling birds.

8 x 5 = 40 golden rings

7 x 6 = 42 geese a laying

6 x 7 = 42 swans a swimming 

5 x 8 = 40 maids a milking.

4 x 9 = 36 ladies dancing.

3 x 10 =30 Lords a leaping

2 x11 = 22 pipers piping.

1 x 12 =12 drummers drumming 

For the numerate amongst you that is a total of 364 gifts! 

Imagine the expense of sending such gifts. The PNC Christmas tree index, started in 1944, calculated the cost of buying all the gifts for the last day at $38,993.59 in 2019 and the cost of all the gifts in the song at $170,298.03. That is only an increase of .2% since 2018. Since 1984 however, the cost has increased by 95%.

Should this gift be given, imagine how they would test the patience of any true love. Even supposing that one had a country estate in which to house the birds, what on earth would one do with the people? Even assuming they were rented for the day, they would need to be fed and housed while they were milking (if one had so many cows), dancing (so one would need a fiddler at least and a band at most), leaping, piping and drumming. No true love would do such a thing to the object of their affection, surely?

No matter where it began, what it costs and what to do with such a gift, it is an eminently adaptable song to the country in which it is being sung – and it is fun!

Consider an Australian version, one of many, that includes 12 parrots prattling, 11 numbats nagging, 10 lizards leaping, 9 wombats working, 8 dingos dancing, 7 possums playing, 6 brolgas dancing, 5 kangaroos, 4 koalas cuddling, 3 kookaburras laughing, 2 pink galahs and an emu in a gum tree. 

In Canada, the Butchart Gardens devote the entire garden in November and December to displays of the traditional items, so lighted and arranged as to take the visitor on a tour of the entire garden with in the day or with spectacular light shows at night. Here are the 8 maids a milking by day and by night – the first photo taken when a cousin and I toured the gardens by day.

Christmas tree ornaments, tea towels, quilts and books have been created featuring the 12 days. The song holds fascination for all who celebrate Christmas. 

And, the song adapts almost endlessly. Let me leave you with a version of the 12 days that would probably be most welcome right about – the wine lovers version!

May your true love bring you what you want and need, in the quantities that are appropriate, at a price you can afford. 

Merry Christmas to all and to all a safe celebration. 



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