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The Twelve Days of Christmas: Traditional English Carol, Variations of Words, Background Information

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Ann enjoys writing about traditions and festivities, especially surrounding Christmas and local annual events.

Christmas Card

The Twelve Days of Christmas (Carol)

The Twelve Days of Christmas (Carol)

The Twelve Days of Christmas

This well-known traditional English Christmas carol, first published in the late 18th century, is about the narrator’s true-love sending different presents for the twelve days of Christmas.

There have been many variations of the words as well as of the tunes accompanying them. I include below the version that I was taught.

In more modern times, the fourth day brought ‘Four Calling Birds’ but I always remember it as Four Colly Birds when I was but a dot. All the other days refer to specific birds or people, so a calling bird, to me, didn't ring true.

Christmas 2021 brought me a card with the song written on the front; it reminded me of the ‘colly’ birds, so I looked it up.

It appears that ‘calling bird’ means any song bird, so could be a reference to several birds, but ‘colly’ means ‘black as coal or soot’ (so presumably ‘coal-ly’), thereby indicating that the specific colly bird was the blackbird. As this is my favourite bird, I’m sticking to ‘four colly birds’.

Blackbird or Colly Bird

Singing his heart out!

Singing his heart out!

Which Twelve Days?

The song starts on Christmas Day, the 25th December, and finishes with 5th January, the day before Epiphany when the three wise men brought their own gifts for the baby Jesus.

Presents Ready for Delivery

All boxed up and Ready to Go!

All boxed up and Ready to Go!

The Twelve Subjects of the Verse

As it is sung, each previous item is repeated in descending order, for example:

…..’five Gold Rings, four Colly Birds, three French Hens, two Turtle Doves, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree’

1st day: a Partridge in a Pear Tree

2nd: two Turtle Doves

3rd: three French Hens

4th: four Colly Birds

5th: five Gold Rings

6th: six Geese a-Laying

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7th: seven Swans a-Swimming

8th: eight Maids a-Milking

9th: nine Ladies Dancing

10th: ten Lords a-Leaping

11th: eleven Pipers Piping

12th: twelve Drummers Drumming

After all those are repeated in each round, they make a total of 364 gifts by the 12th day - a year’s worth of presents since the previous Christmas! Hence the Christmas Price Index, based originally on how much the items cost. I find that a bit random!

It is said that the carol was composed as a reminder for the events of the Catholic calendar but there are numerous other theories, including each item’s connection to each month of the year.


Used for many designs on Christmas cards, this verse evokes images of people in the throes of much activity, along with geese laying and swans swimming. Festivities abound and the wildlife is busy too!

The partridge sits in its tree, the doves are presumably cooing, maybe the hens are just pecking and the colly birds are singing joyously.

Gold rings don’t seem to fit into the scenario until we find the theory that they weren’t actually an article of jewellery but ‘refer to the five golden rings of the ringed pheasant. Others suggest the gold rings refer to “five goldspinks”– a goldspink being an old name for goldfinch, or even canaries. Even more birds! However, the 1780 publication includes an illustration that clearly depicts the “five gold rings” as being jewellery.’

Apart from the maids who have to stick to their milking, we have much dancing, leaping, piping (as in bagpipes, to me an infernal noise) and drumming. A drummer boy used to lead armies into battle but drummers were, and still are, more often used for ceremonies though usually still part of the military.

Memory Game

According to ‘Good Housekeeping’, most historians ‘believe that the Christmas carol started out as a "memory-and-forfeit" game in 1800s England. These types of games were played by British school children, and the rules were simple: When it's your turn, you repeat all the previously sung lyrics, and add the next one. If you can't remember a verse, you owe your opponent a "forfeit," which was usually a kiss or piece of candy.’

Many of the items use alliteration to good effect, making them easier to remember.

Exercise and Singing

Whatever its origin or purpose, this song is fun, colourful, and energetic, befitting of the atmosphere of Christmas celebrations.

What better activity after a large Christmas meal than dancing, leaping and singing, whilst listening to bird song!

I’ll pass on the milking, though, thanks!

Crackers and Candy!

Candy & Crackers

Candy & Crackers


© 2021 Ann Carr

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