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The History Behind the 12 Days of Christmas

Even if we get the order a bit mixed up after a few sherries, we all pretty much know the words to The 12 Days of Christmas. But what are the 12 days of Christmas? When are they? And where can one even buy turtle doves??

 

Twelvetide

Before we even get on to all those lords a-leapin’, we wanted to know exactly what the 12 days of Christmas are and where they come from.

 

Dating back as far as 567, the 12 days of Christmas was a Christian religious festival designed to mark and celebrate the days surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ. The 12 days were originally Christmas Day and the 11 saints’ days that followed, ending with the Epiphany – a Christian feast day that takes place on January 6th. Also known as Twelvetide, this was a time for celebrations and feasting as well as religious observation.

 

Throughout time, this Christmas period has remained one of merrymaking, even for the non-religious. Secular feasting and partying during this time started as early as medieval times as people began blending pagan winter traditions with the existing Christian holiday.

 

Although we don’t still tend to celebrate each individual day anymore, lots of Twelvetide traditions can still be seen today such as eating roast goose and fruit pudding. It’s also become superstition to avoid bad luck in the new year by taking down Christmas decorations on or before January 6th – the Twelfth Night.

 

A Peacock in a Juniper Tree

 What’s Yuletide without a rendition of The 12 Days of Christmas? Brits have been singing this fun festive folk song since the eighteenth century and it’s seen some interesting changes over the years!

 

  • In one nineteenth-century version of the song, ‘my true love’ didn’t give the gifts… ‘my mother’ did!
  • There’s quite a lot of evidence to show that the song might have come from an earlier French variant. For example, the last line might have been ‘a partridge, une perdrix’ – aka, the French word for partridge. Of course, when you say it out loud, it gives us a clue as to where that pear tree might have come from…
  • There’s no such thing as calling birds – the original 1780 version of the song talks about ‘colly’ birds, an old English word for ‘black’ (which might be where ‘Collie’ dogs come from, too). So calling birds are really blackbirds, after all.
  • Some versions of the song had a peacock in a pear tree, and other versions didn’t have a pear tree at all but a ‘some part of a juniper tree’. Which really doesn’t sound as good.
  • Some other *interesting* gifts that no longer feature in the song include ‘bears a-beating’, ‘squabs a swimming’ (that’s pigeons FYI), ‘ducks quacking’, ‘badgers baiting’, and ‘asses racing’. To be fair, we’d probably pass on those gifts too…
  • 12 Days of Christmas might be one of the most covered Christmas carols of all time, with versions by everyone from Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball to Winnie-the-Pooh and Ren and Stimpy.

 

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