Summary: The "Twelve Days of Christmas"
The "Twelve Days of Christmas"
Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (KJV)
4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD:
5 And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.
6 And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart:
7 And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.
8 And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes.
9 And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.
Attention, This was taken entirely from.... Source: "Twelve Days of Christmas. A Celebration and History" by Leigh Grant © 1995
The "Twelve Days of Christmas" first appeared in a children's book titled, Mirth Without Mischief in England way back in 1780. In this book, it appears to be a memory game, rather than a Christmas song. (But, then some could say that the song itself is like a memory game.) The object of the game is to have the first player start out reciting the first verse, with each of the following players repeating previous versed and then adding one. If a player missed a verse or made some kind of error, then he/she would have to give a kiss or some kind of food to someone else. This game soon grew to be very popular at Twelfth Night parties.
Although the first published version of this song was in England, there are three older versions of the song in French, and one other version from Scotland. Therefore, with some people, there remains debate on the origin of the song not necessarily being English, but French.
In 1842, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" song was first recorded by James O. Halliwell. Boys with blackened faces wearing animal skins accompanied him. (See Twelve Lords A-leaping to explain this dance.)
So, how did the idea of 12 days begin? Why not the Ten Days of Christmas or the Fourteen Days of Christmas? It all goes back to the early 4th century Christian church, which believed that January 6 (Epiphany) is the date that Christ was baptized, representing the birth of Jesus' soul. This was more important than December 25th to them, regardless of the Winter Solstice at the time. It took a few hundred years; but, by the 6th century, the Christian emperor, Justinian, proclaimed Christmas as a public holiday, with 8 days of feasting. Then, by the 9th century, King Alfred of England increased the celebration from 8 days to 12 days. He declared December 25th - January 6th, with the twelfth day falling on January 6. Note: This means the actual night would be the day before on January 5. Confusing, I know.
As with all cultures, as the king or society prospers, so do the celebrations. This held true for Christmas also. The Middles Ages was the peak era for celebrating Christmas. Then in 17th century England, Oliver Cromwell, under the Puritan Commonwealth, overthrew the king and totally abolished Christmas!
Slowly, Christmas returned to society during the Restoration period, but not in such a gala manner as during the Middle Ages. It wasn't until the end of the 18th century in England that a growing interest developed for the past, one of them being the Twelve Days (of Christmas celebrations). By the time the Industrial Revolution hit England, the Twelve Days came to a decline due to the increase in work days. No one had time for 12 days of celebration any more. Does anyone today for that matter?
There are differing viewpoints on what The Twelve Days of Christmas represent. They vary from cultural, social, political to religious. I'll go through them as the song gives them, starting with the pear tree. The religious meanings are at the end of the page in a table. As I was going through each item, I felt there was a common theme of "fertility" in most of these items. This really surprised me!
One tradition for some on Twelfth Night is to go around wassailing fruit trees as a kind of fertility rite. Exactly how this is done had varied from century to century. But, in the 18th century (when the song was created) wassailing was done by pouring cider, honey, spices and pulp from a burst baked apple (all mixed in a bowl) around the trees. The term "Wassail" is taken from the waes hael meaning "be whole" (aka be in good health).
Another folklore claims that a young maiden was suppose to walk backwards around a pear tree three times on Christmas morning. Then she gazes into the branches. She should see the image of her future husband.