On The Twelfth Day of Christmas

by Mr B

"On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me."

An instantly recognisable line from one of the world's most popular Christmas songs, and although it is highly repetitive very few people can remember all the words. In my deep research I learned that the origin is possibly French, but it was first published in the 1780s as a kind of memory game - each person would sing a line and add a description. I used to play a game like this when i was a child, called "I went to market" (and i bought an apple, a banana, a cuckoo, etc). The advantage was that there was an alphabetical theme, so there was something to nudge your memory. I suppose the Georgians (as in the subjects of King George, not the break-away Russians) had sharper minds and were able to completely freestyle. Or perhaps they had less need to memorise the names of all the characters in Top Cat, Scooby Doo and Grange Hill so there was more space.

OK. So let's start at the beginning, or perhaps it's actually the end. The gift for the 12th day. This is one I always forget. Twelve drummers drumming, as demonstrated on this high quality You Tube video filmed in front of a packed auditorium. Although many people assume that the twelfth day is Christmas Day, and the song is a countdown to the big day, it is actually January 5th or 6th, depending on the specific religious doctrine. 12 days after Christmas.

I can also never remember 11. I'm drawn to the thought that it's 'eleven lords a-leaping' because there's good alliteration but the truth is 'eleven pipers piping'. According to the Provident National Bank of Philadelphia, who at least for a few years ran a annual price inflation index based on the 12 days of Christmas, these pipers would cost you $947.70. Their estimation of the total cost of all 12 gifts was more than $23,000. Do you love your true love that much?

But let's get moving. It's 'ten lords a-leaping', which must be the only time anyone ever says 'a-leaping'. I must try to use it more in conversation.

"Instead of going out clubbing, why don't we go a-leaping?" Yes, maybe I will use this more.

Nine ladies dancing. I bet they wish they were a-leaping instead, it's becoming very popular.

Eight maids a-milking refers to girls milking cows. I have never thought about it in detail, but it seems like a very unusual gift. They are actually milking the cows, not just walking them towards your true love. My interesting milk maids fact is that there used to be a common phrase 'as smooth as a milk-maid's skin'. When smallpox was ravaging Europe, and European complexions, milkmaids had partial immunity due to their exposure to Cowpox, and therefore their skin was literally more smooth.

OK. Running out of time to write this blog, let's pick up the pace. Seven swans a-swimming. That always rolls off the tongue (but how do you transport swimming swans in the 18th Century?). Six geese a-laying.

And then every child's favourite. The line we all sing at the top of our voices and the most volatile gift in the annual 12 Days price index.

"Five Gold Rings!"

Now we're on the home straight. The adrenaline kicks in as we start to speed up. Four calling birds. Obviously they don't have an iPhone 4, otherwise it would be 'four birds without a signal'. Three French hens (I have no idea how you teach a hen to speak French). And Two turtle doves. In the 18th Century this gift would be quite a challenge because European Turtle Doves are migratory, and are not seen here between September and March because it's too cold. I suppose you could cage them in advance, but would you need to keep them warm? And what would you feed them?

Finale time. I know you know the last line. I can almost hear it bursting through the computer screen as you shout it out in your millions.

But do you have any idea why it's 'a partridge in a pear tree'? No, neither do I.

Mr B is a father of two and writes under a pseudonym to avoid embarrassing them.

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Sir Henry Cole commissioned the first commercial christmas card in the mid 19th Century. The card was illustrated by John Callcott Horsley and showed a family drinking wine. He sold out of his first 2000 print run.