For the British people, singing the Twelve Days of Christmas is as much a part of the season’s festivities as garish jumpers, mistletoe and a penny buried in a flaming Christmas pudding. But for newcomers to these isles, hearing folk passionately singing about leaping lords, milking maids and an ever-growing menagerie of wild birds epitomises the eccentricity for which the Brits are known. And so, I decided to look into the history of the song in the hope of making a little more sense of this Christmas tradition and look into its history. Who knows, perhaps even enlightening a few of the locals!
Historians disagree on the origins of the song; however, it is likely that it started out as a memory-and-forfeit game at Twelfth Night Parties, a popular event in Britain until the late 19th Century which marked the end of the Christmas season on the night of 5th January.
A common feature of the party was an elaborately-decorated cake known as the Twelfth Cake that contained a hidden bean. A delicacy that is believed to have originated in France where it is known as ‘Galette des Rois’ (or King’s Cake), whoever received the slice of cake containing the bean was crowned the Lord or Lady of Misrule and they alone could decide the evening’s activities.
In one such activity, children sat in a circle and one-by-one took turns recalling the next line of the Twelve Days of Christmas and all the lines the person before them had sung. Any mistakes meant a forfeit, such as giving someone a kiss or a confectionery. The earliest known record of the words we sing today appeared in the children’s book ‘Mirth without Mischief’, published in 1780.
But why the abundance of birds? There is a great book titled A Christmas Cornucopia by Mark Forsyth, which provides some really interesting ideas.
First of all, at the time the game appeared, there was a long-standing tradition of shooting birds over the Christmas period, which immediately resonates with the various species of wild birds the song mentions.
Moreover, there’s “a Christmas recipe from 1747 for a large turkey stuffed with a whole goose stuffed with a chicken stuffed with a pigeon stuffed with a partridge, like a Russian doll made of meat” as Mark Forsyth explains, which sounds like the Twelve Days of Christmas on a plate! Not to mention giving added legitimacy to that post-Christmas dinner exclamation: “I’m stuffed!”
As for the reference to thepartridge in a ‘pear tree’, it is generally assumed this is a play on the French word for partridge, ‘perdrix’ (pronounced pear-dree). Some historians claim that (as with the Twelfth Cake), the words of Twelve Days of Christmas may ultimately have been French and that the end of the opening line of the song would originally have been ‘a partridge, une perdrix‘.