The twelve days of Christmas is a cumulative rhyme which has been adapted into a popular Christmas carol. It recites a list of extravagant gifts given over the twelve days following Christmas day. The first English version was published in a book of games for children as a game where the players would recite the rhyme and each subsequent player recites the next gift until someone gets it wrong, and has to carry out a forfeit.
The rhyme was adapted from a number of French New Year carols, all of which start with a partridge as the first gift. The pear tree is an English addition, and could stem from a number of sources including mistaken translation of the French word for partridge (perdrix) or from the fact that French red legged partridges often perch in trees as opposed to British common partridge, which spend the majority of their lives on the ground.
There is a large amount of variation in the song depending on location and age. The original published rhyme recounts the following:
On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me – 12 Lords a leaping, 11 Ladies dancing, 10 Pipers piping, 9 Drummers drumming, 8 Maids a milking, 7 Swans a swimming, 6 Geese a laying, 5 Gold rings, 4 Colly birds, 3 French hens, 2 Turtle doves and a Partridge in a pear-tree.
Variations in later published accounts have included replacing pipers piping to ships-a-sailing or bells a ringing, a version where maids a milking and drummers drumming are replaced by hares a running and badgers baiting, and even the partridge being replaced by ‘a very pretty peacock’.
The recognised version we now know was published as a song in 1909 by Frederic Austin. He set down the lineup we now know, including the descending arrangement of drummers, pipers, lords, ladies, maids, swans, geese, rings, birds, hens, doves and partridge. He also changed the regional English word for black – colly – to four calling birds. This is because the word was a source of confusion in other parts of England, as well as internationally. Austin also introduced the extended pronounciation of five gold rings.
In the spirit of how adaptable the song has been over the centuries, and as our audience is likely to be tucking into turkey and champagne over the real twelve days, we’ve decided to run an advent style countdown on our Tumblr during the twelve days before Christmas! Each of the twelve gifts will be represented by selected objects from the museum collections.
Lee Ismail, Curator of Natural Sciences