Pipers piping? Geese-a-laying? Five gooolden rings? And a partridge ... in a pear tree? What in the name of yule logs is “The Twelve Days of Christmas“ all about? The short answer, it turns out, is that many people have asked that question, and there are nearly as many answers. Here are 12 facts about the song as you gear up for the 12 days (which kick off on Christmas and run through January 6) themselves.
1. Lots of people insist the song is Catholic catechism ...
The story goes that from the 16th to the 18th century, when being a Catholic was illegal in Protestant England, children would sing this song to learn their forbidden faith. The partridge and the pear tree was Jesus Christ, the four calling birds were the four gospels, the pipers piping were the 11 faithful apostles, and so on.
2. … But that’s probably not true.
For one thing, it doesn’t fit the bill as a catechism song. All 12 things it professes to secretly represent—the books of the Bible, the six days of creation, etc.—would have been acceptable to Protestants as well. For another thing, this rumor seems to have popped up in the last few decades and then spread widely on the internet without reference to any original sources.
3. The precise origin of the song is unknown ...
Though where “The Twelve Days of Christmas” came from isn’t clear, it shows up in Mirth Without Mischief, which was published around 1780, and James Orchard Halliwell’s The Nursery Rhymes of England, which was published in 1842. Edward Phinney, then a professor of classics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, told the Los Angeles Times that the song “was first published in 1868 in a book of Christmas songs in England, but it’s probably been around a lot longer than that.”
4. … But it may have started as a kids’ game.
One theory is that it was probably “a memory and forfeit game for twelfth night celebrations which would have been said and not sung,” as Reverend Mark Lawson Jones writes in Why Was the Partridge in the Pear Tree?: A History of Christmas Carols. “The players gathered in a circle and the leader would recite a verse and each would repeat it, the leader would add another verse, and speak faster, and so on until a mistake was made by one of the players, who would then drop out of the game.”
In some retellings, the game worked a little more like Spin the Bottle: If a kid messed up, he owed someone a kiss. In either case, the goal was to count all the way up to 12 and back down without stumbling, forgetting a lyric, or getting your tongue twisted up on any of the sinuous bits, like “seven swans a-swimming.”
5. Another theory is that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a love song.
“If you think of all the things being presented, they’re all gifts from a lover to a woman,” Phinney said in 1990. “Some of them are rather impossible to give, like eight maids a-milking and nine ladies dancing. All those ladies and dancing and pipers and drums imply this is a wedding. In this case, it looks like a young man trying to impress his intended by wooing her with many gifts. They’re all things that would be useful at a wedding.”
According to Phinney, the song is rife with references to fertility (maids a-milking, lords a-leapin’, geese a-laying). The final gift—the partridge in a pear tree—is the ultimate lover’s offer, according to Phinney: The pear is heart-shaped, and “the partridge is a famous aphrodisiac.”
6. They weren’t always “four calling birds.”
There’s no such thing as “calling birds,” so it makes sense that previous versions of the song’s lyrics mention “four canary birds” and “four mockingbirds”; before that, they show up as “colly birds” or “collie birds,” which is the archaic term for blackbirds. (More on “calling birds” in a bit.)
7. “Five golden rings” probably don’t refer to what you think they refer to.
There’s pretty good evidence suggesting “five golden rings” isn’t jewelry but instead a reference to either the yellowish rings around a pheasant’s neck or to “goldspinks,” an old name for a pretty little bird called the goldfinch. And that actually makes sense, considering every other lyric in the first seven days of the song references a bird: a partridge, turtle doves, French hens (or “fat ducks,” depending on the version), calling birds (or black birds), swans, and geese.
8. The partridge and its pear tree might have something to do with French.
Another rather credible origin story concerns the partridge itself. Some have theorized that the lyric “partridge in a pear tree,” is actually an Anglicization of what would have begun as a French word for partridge: perdrix. The original line would have been “a partridge, une perdrix,” which, when you say it out loud, sounds a lot like “a partridge in a pear tree.”
9. English composer Frederic Austin came up with the music we know today.
As Peter Armenti wrote in a 2016 post for the Library of Congress, “Austin was among the first, if not the first, to use the phrase four calling birds, and it took a while for it to catch on.” When he compared the popularity of four calling birds and four colly birds in Google’s Ngram Viewer, Armenti discovered that “it wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s that calling began to rival colly as the preferred word, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that calling seemed to surpass colly as the more common word in the song. As the word colly passed out of common usage among English-language speakers, it’s no surprise that Austin’s similar-sounding alternative calling became more popular, even if nobody quite knows what a ‘calling bird’ is!”
10. There are a lot of renditions and parodies of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” ...
Over the years, the song has been done and re-done by everyone from the Chipmunks, Winnie the Pooh (“a hunny pot inna hollow tree!”) and Ren and Stimpy, to Lucille Ball and Ol’ Blue Eyes himself. In Sinatra’s version, he replaces the traditional gifts of birds with things like “Five ivory combs,” “Four mission lights,” Three golf clubs,” “Two silken scarfs,” and “a most lovely lavender tie.” In a version by Bob Rivers, a Seattle radio personality, he replaces each “gift” with one of the inconveniences of Christmastime—“sending Christmas cards,” “facing my in-laws,” and, course, “finding a Christmas tree”—to create “The Twelve Pains of Christmas.”
11. … And it even made its way to The Office.
In a 2009 episode of the American version of The Office, Andy Bernard, who is Erin’s office Secret Santa, gives her each item on the “Twelve Days of Christmas” list in an attempt to woo her. Flummoxed by the influx of large fowl at her desk, Erin beseeches her Secret Santa to please stop, due to injuries caused by the wild animals. At the end, Andy admits he has been giving the poorly conceived gifts—just as a cacophonous parade of 12 drummers enters the set.
12. All the gifts in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” could cost a pretty penny.
Every year since 1984, a group of economists at PNC Wealth Management have figured out how much it would cost to actually buy all the things on the “Twelve Days of Christmas” list. The so-called Christmas Price Index indicates inflation and the increasing costs of certain goods. This year, for instance, if you were really going to buy everything on that list, it would run you $45,523.27. (If you factor in the song’s repetition, which accounts for 364 gifts, you’re looking at $197,071.09.) Compare that to 1990, when it cost $23,366.09. At today’s prices, a performance of 12 drummers drumming would set you back $3266.93, while seven swans will run you a whopping $13,124.93.
A version of this story ran in 2013; it has been updated for 2022.