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The 12 Days of Christmas

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"The Twelve Days of Christmas" is a well-known Christmas tune known as a cumulative song because each verse gets repeated with every subsequent verse. By the time the singers reach the end of the 12th verse, the "partridge in a pear tree" has been sung 12 times.

The song, thought to be French in origin and familiar to English and Scandinavian singers since the 17th Century, was published first in 1780, in England as a chant, without music, in a children's book titled Mirth without Mischief. The song was originally intended as a memory-and-forfeit challenge, wherein one child recited a verse and then the next child had to repeat that verse verbatim and then add her own. The song underwent some revisions, and the tune now familiar was incorporated in 1909 by a English composer named Frederic Austin.

The 12 days referenced in the song start on either Christmas itself or the day after, with the 12th day being either January 5 or January 6.

Some variations alter the last few days a bit, but the version most familiar to Americans would be this one:

  • A Partridge in a pear tree
  • 2 Turtledoves
  • 3 French hens
  • 4 Calling birds (originally "colly" or "collie", or blackbirds)
  • 5 Golden rings (originally "gold")
  • 6 Six geese-a-laying
  • 7 Swans-a-swimming
  • 8 Maids-a-milking
  • 9 Ladies dancing
  • 10 Lords-a-leaping
  • 11 Pipers piping
  • 12 Drummers drumming

The general consensus is that the author had no particular agenda in mind when choosing which things or animals or people to list for which day. One idea that has gained ground in certain circles in the past few decades is that the song was much older than its first publication and that it was a coded method of helping young Catholics learn their religion (in the Elizabethan era, when practicing Catholicism openly was cause for severe punishment).

In rather tongue-in-cheek fashion, top economic officials in America traditionally offer a dollar amount that is the cumulative cost for buying everything sung in "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (including all 12 partridges, all 12 pear trees, etc.). Some sources refer to this as the Christmas Price Index. The first time that this figure was released, in 1984, the total cost was $12,263.10. That figure has since doubled.

The song has featured widely in movies, TV programs, and popular music, in the U.S. and in other countries.


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