The Countdown to Yuletide: “The Twelve Days of Christmas”
A popular Christmas carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, is one of the most known and sung during the yuletide season. Even though the object or animals mentioned in the song don't correspond to modern times and tastes, it is one of the most loved Christmas songs.
Like many beloved songs, the history of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” is long and murky. There is no credited composer or lyricist. This song has almost 21 variations, depending on the place.
The theme of the song is giving, reflecting the central message of Christmas. The song suggests a particular gift on the day and the specific amount of gift to one's 'True Love.' For example, the first day explains that the singer has received "A partridge in a pear tree." The gifts are also specific, sometimes with a particular qualifier ('three French hens') or specific action (Ladies Dancing, Geese a Laying). Another unique aspect of this song as a countdown is the items/gifts mentioned in the song. These items are meant to give at the start of Christmas Day until the twelfth or last day. The last day is for the Epiphany (or Feast of the Three Kings), which marks the end of Christmas.
As mentioned, this carol's history is hard to trace. Records show the first English version of the carol was first printed in 1780 in a book intended for children called Mirth without Mischief. The book was designed to be a memorization game to be played at the Twelfth Night or Epiphany Eve.
The credit for the catchy melody belongs to English Composer Frederic Austin. Novello & Co. first published the standard tune in 1909. In Austin's song, he tweaked some text to fit with the melody. The change includes the inclusion of 'On' at every verse's start, use of "calling birds," rather than "colly birds," and ordering of ninth to twelfth verses.