(This is my third installment in a series that explores our rich tradition of Christmas Carols and its rich history)
I myself was excited to start studying the history of this one, and I found a number of surprises. At least to me they were. For example I had no idea the 12 days of Christmas was an actual calendar set of days, after December 25th, which usually ends January 6th with a climactic feast called Ephipany. It was an old Christian tradition dating back to Shakespeare’s time, and for you Shakespeare fanatics this comes at no surprise to you right? The Twelfth Night? (If you want to learn more about that tradition you can look up a pretty good article about it here.)
What really intrigued me was, what is up with all this fowl language. Some of the first articles I read said that each bird or gift was a coded article that persecuted Catholics in 18th century England used to memorize the tenants of their faith with. Honestly, I think I heard this before, and at first reaction, I believed it. However after digging deeper, there is evidence to point in the direction that this carol was merely a kid’s song. One of the more interesting articles said that during the twelve days of Christmas, children would sing this song in a sort of chorus; a child would sing the first verse, then the second child in the group would sing the second, and whoever couldn’t keep up would be out of the group.
At first I thought, here we go again, people just trying to put down traditions of the church. Haters. But I came across some good reasons as to why it wouldn’t be some sort of underground catechism (I’ll just list one for space sake); both Anglicans (the persecutors), and the Catholics (persecuted), believed in many common tenants that the song says Catholics needed to keep secret. For example, partridge = Jesus, two French hens = New and Old Testament, etc. These are tenants that are shared between denominations and would not require one to go underground. Another real good indicator that it is false, is that this idea is actually a modern one. First writings that purport this idea came as late as 1979, whereas the song first appears in 1780, and the tune even earlier than that.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we may just have a real good children’s song etched in our Christmas Carols history, which I am fine with. It’s a lovely song, not much meaning at all anymore for me, but lovely still the same. Images of birds I’ve never seen dance through my mind, as I then catch them and wrap them and give them to my wife. I think I just imagine pheasants and pigeons, with funny tails.
Don’t go just yet, there’s more. Some say that what might have happened is around the late 1700’s the song “The 12 Days of Christmas” might have been confused somehow with a traditional catechism type song called, “A New Dial” (or also known as “In Those Twelve Days” in some circles I guess). Consider the lyrics below of the first six days:
What are they that are but one?
We have one God alone
In heaven above sits on His throne.
What are they which are but two?
Two testaments, the old and new,
We do acknowledge to be true.
What are they which are but three?
Three persons in the Trinity
Which make one God in unity.
What are they which are but four
Four sweet Evangelists there are,
Christ’s birth, life, death which do declare.
What are they which are but five?
Five senses, like five kings, maintain
In every man a several reign.
What are they which are but six?
Six days to labor is not wrong,
For God himself did work so long.
I suppose it is possible that the “The 12 Days of Christmas” could have been an evolution of this song into less religious lyrics. However, I’m inclined to think though that this song, which came out about 100 years prior to “The 12 Days of Christmas”, in 1625, instead lent a catchy tune to a kids song…about birds I’ve never heard of.
So what to do now? I feel like I just popped the fantasy bubble in some peoples minds that this song had a deep important underlying meaning. To you, I’m deeply sorry. But seriously, what to do. Not sure, but I think I’m going to try singing it the way it was meant to be sung; in choruses in a group with children, and the one who can’t keep up, has to take a shot of that crazy Christmas drink with raw eggs.