12 Days of Christmas: A Brief History & Symbolism

Updated June 7, 2021
woman holding sheet music at christmas

Every winter, thousands of elementary school children join together in jubilant shouts of gold rings and pear trees, all the while trying to keep up the break-neck tempo and rapid-fire recitation of this classic Christmas song. While you've probably had your own history with the legendary tune, you might not be as well versed in the "12 Days of Christmas'" history. Let's go back a few hundred years and discover how the beloved Christmas song came to be and why people still sing it today.

Origins of the 12 Days of Christmas

Most everyone who ever sung a round or two of these tongue-twister type tunes agrees that they feel timeless, as they should be included among the annals of other folk songs that are somehow imprinted in the human genome in a way that no one remembers ever learning them, but knows exactly which melody to hum when asked to sing it. The "12 Days of Christmas" stretches back to before the 18th century, and although historians haven't quite pinned down a specific date-of-origin, they have determined that the song likely has French roots, as its musical style mimics French minstrel songs from the period and was likely sung during the merriment traditions and celebrations for the Feast of Kings on the Twelfth Night (January 6th).

Eventually, the poem transferred from France, across the English channel, into the British Isles where historians have found the earliest written evidence of the song in a children's book entitled Mirth With-out Mischief (1780). This late 18th century rendition of the song doesn't mirror exactly the same lyrics that are used today, but it marks an important step towards creating the beloved musical piece carolers hold near and dear. It was adopted for both holiday celebrations and as a recitation to help with children's memory skills at the time. English settlers took this tradition with them as they traveled to the United States and soon, much of the western world was enjoying singing rounds of this song together to ring in the holiday season.

The Contemporary Standard Is Born in 1909

Until the early 20th century, the poem wasn't set to any universally accepted music; rather, communities adapted folk tunes to create a unified interpretation which everyone could enjoy. But, in 1909, an English composer named Frederic Austin set the poetry to a modified folk tune, and refined the lyrical arrangement before completing his composition, adding perhaps the song's most popular element - its five golden rings. This arrangement is the one that we all know and love today.

12 Days of Christmas Lyrics

Although this song is considered a Christmas classic, there're many people out there who's tongues and memories trip them up when trying to sing the tune. It doesn't help that the songs meant to be sung in a cumulative fashion, with each verse building on itself and being recited once again - and in order - twelve different times. To clear up any confusion, here's the universally acknowledged lyrics of the 12 Days of Christmas that's sung around the world every winter:

12 Days of Christmas lyrics

Hidden Christian Meanings Debunked

A widely believed, but generally thought to be erroneous, urban myth holds that the carol is ripe with hidden Christian meanings. According to this religious theory, the gifts were meant to symbolize a variety of Christian motifs and theologically significant moments. According to Snopes, this theory seems to date back to the 1990s, meaning that it doesn't have a significant historical basis and is likely reflective of the sociopolitical climate of the late 20th century. Here are each of the supposed hidden meanings for the twelve individual lines of the song.

  • Partridge in a Pear Tree - Jesus, as described in Luke 13:34
  • Two Turtle Doves - The old and new testaments of the Bible
  • Three French Hens - The Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost)
  • Four Calling Birds - The Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
  • Five Golden Rings - The Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible)
  • Six Geese a-Laying - The six days of Creation
  • Seven Swans a-Swimming - The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit
  • Eight Maids a-Milking - The eight beatitudes
  • Nine Ladies Dancing - The nine fruits of the Holy Spirit
  • Ten Lords a-Leaping - The Ten Commandments
  • Eleven Pipers Piping - The eleven faithful apostles
  • Twelve Drummers Drumming - The doctrines in the Apostles' Creed

The 12 Days of Christmas' Many Versions

As with the changing seasons, so too has the 12 Days of Christmas gone through various iterations over the past few hundred years since it's been around. From dog breeds to baobab trees, here's just a sampling of the ways that people have reinterpreted the song to give it new meaning in this humorous and diverse global community of the 21st century.

The Song Resonates Around the Globe

No matter its European origins, the song has come to be interpreted by dozens of unique cultures and communities, all instilling an imprint of their experience onto this universally beloved song. The opportunity to personalize the song's lyrics to fit your family or your identity are endless, and the sheer volume of different versions of the song speaks to the way it provides comfort and joy to people as they close out the year. So, next time you join in a round of "The 12 Days of Christmas" think back to all those people who sang it before you and all of those who will.

12 Days of Christmas: A Brief History & Symbolism