The Twelve Days of Christmas

We know, from reading Jane Austen’s letters, that she, along with the rest of Georgian England, celebrated Twelfth Night, the culmination of twelve days of celebrating, beginning Christmas Day. Twelfth Night, which marked the official end of the festivities was a highly anticipated holiday which included games (such as Charades and Tableau Vivants) and special foods, like Twelfth Night Cake.

The time leading up to this celebration was, of course, called The Twelve Days of Christmas, and as the song of the same name implies, it was a time for true lovers to meet, fall in love, or even marry. The twelve days after Christmas were often the scene for house parties and balls, and it is presumed that Jane Austen met Tom Lefory during this time, in late 1795/early 1796.

Her letter of January 9th, 1796, mentions the Manydown ball at which they danced and Jane told her sister to “Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can expose myself however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all.”

Jane Austen dances with Tom Lefroy in "Becoming Jane"

Jane Austen dances with Tom Lefroy in “Becoming Jane”

This period was also known as Christmastide and Twelvetide. The Twelfth Night of Christmas is always on the evening of 5 January, but the Twelfth Day can either precede or follow the Twelfth Night according to which Christian tradition is followed. Twelfth Night is followed by the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January. In some traditions, the first day of Epiphany (6 January) and the twelfth day of Christmas overlap.

Over the centuries, differing Christian denominations have had different customs, time frames and interpretations. St. Stephen’s Day, for example, is 26 December in the Western Church and 27 December in the Eastern Church. Currently, the twelve days and nights are celebrated in widely varying ways around the world. Some give gifts only on Christmas Day, some only on Twelfth Night, and some each of the twelve nights.

The first day of Christmas is Christmas Day and each day is a feast in memory of a Saint or event associated with the Christmas season. The days are as follows:

Day 1, 25 December: Christmas Day.

Day 2, 26 December: St. Stephen’s Day. This day is mentioned in the carol “Good King Wenceslas”. Boxing Day, a non-religious banking holiday occurs on the first day following Christmas. In Ireland this day is also known as Wren Day.

Day 3, 27 December: Feast of saint John the Evangelist and Apostle.

Day 4, 28 December: The Feast of the Holy Innocents, the young male children ordered murdered in Bethlehem by King Herod, according to the Gospel of Matthew. The traditional Christmas song “The Coventry Carol” describes this event.

Day 5, 29 December: The feast day of Saint Thomas Becket.

Day 6, 30 December: The feast of the Holy Family.

Day 7, 31 December: The feast of Saint Sylvester. In Scotland this day is known as Hogmanay. In Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Slovakia, Switzerland and Slovenia, New Years Eve is still referred to as Silvester.

Day 8, 1 January: The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Before the Second Vatican Council, it was also observed as the Feast of the Holy Circumcision of Jesus.

Day 9, 2 January: Octave day of St. Stephen or the feast day of St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen. In England, the Lichfield Martyrs are also celebrated on this day.

Day 10, 3 January: Feast of Saint Genevieve or the most holy name of Jesus.

Day 11, 4 January: The octave day of the feast of the Holy Innocents or the feast of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American saint. In medieval times this was The feast of Saint Simon Stylites.

Day 12, 5 January: In the UK this was the Feast of St. Edward the Confessor, King of England. The rest of Europe feasted St. Julian the Hospitaller on this day. The modern church recognizes this as the feast day of St. John Neumann. The evening of the 5 January is also Twelfth Night.

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Twelfth Night (The King Drinks) by David Teniers c. 1634-1640

In England in the Middle Ages, this period was one of continuous feasting and merrymaking, which climaxed on Twelfth Night, the traditional end of the Christmas season. In Tudor England, Twelfth Night itself was forever solidified in popular culture when William Shakespeare used it as the setting for one of his most famous stage plays, titled Twelfth Night. Often a Lord of Misrule was chosen to lead the Christmas revels.

Some of these traditions were adapted from the older pagan customs, including the Roman Saturnalia and the Germanic Yuletide. Some also have an echo in modern day pantomime where traditionally authority is mocked and the principal male lead is played by a woman, while the leading older female character, or ‘Dame’, is played by a man.

An English Christmas wreath.

An English Christmas wreath.

The early North American colonists brought their version of the Twelve Days over from England, and adapted them to their new country, adding their own variations over the years. For example, the modern-day Christmas wreath may have originated with these colonials. A homemade wreath would be fashioned from local greenery and fruits, if available, were added. Making the wreaths was one of the traditions of Christmas Eve; they would remain hung on each home’s front door beginning on Christmas Night (1st night of Christmas) through Twelfth Night or Epiphany morning. As was already the tradition in their native England, all decorations would be taken down by Epiphany morning and the remainder of the edibles would be consumed. A special cake, the king cake, was also baked then for Epiphany.

Many in the UK and other Commonwealth nations still celebrate some aspects of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Boxing Day (26 December) is a national holiday in many Commonwealth nations, being the first full day of Christmas. Victorian era stories by Charles Dickens (and others), particularly A Christmas Carol, hold key elements of the celebrations such as the consumption of plum pudding, roasted goose and wassail. These foods are consumed more at the beginning of the Twelve Days in the UK.

Twelfth Night is the last day for decorations to be taken down, and it is held to be bad luck to leave decorations up after this. This is in contrast to the custom in Elizabethan England, when decorations were left up until Candlemas (2 February); this is still done in some other Western European countries such as Germany.

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The now popular song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, might actually have been familiar to the Austen family (young Jane would have been only four years old when it was printed, the perfect target audience.)

The best known English version was first printed in English in 1780 in a little book intended for children, Mirth without Mischief, as a Twelfth Night “memories-and-forfeits” game, in which a leader recited a verse, each of the players repeated the verse, the leader added another verse, and so on until one of the players made a mistake, with the player who erred having to pay a penalty, such as offering up a kiss or a sweet. One hundred years later, Lady Gomme, a collector of folktales and rhymes, described how it used to be played every Twelfth Day night before eating mince pies and twelfth cake.

Illustration of "five gold rings", from the first known publication of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (1780)

Illustration of “five gold rings”, from the first known publication of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (1780)

“Twelve days of Christmas” was adapted from similar New Years’ or spring French carols, of which at least three are known, all featuring a partridge, perdriz or perdriole, as the first gift. The pear tree appears only in the English version, but this could also indicate a French origin.

In the northern counties of England, the song was often called the “Ten Days of Christmas”, the gifts numbering but ten. It was also known in Somerset, Dorsetshire, and elsewhere in England. The kinds of gifts vary in a number of the versions, some of them becoming alliterative tongue-twisters.

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a cumulative song, meaning that each verse is built on top of the previous verses. There are twelve verses, each describing a gift given by “my true love” on one of the twelve days of Christmas…and so forth, until the last verse:

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me.

12 Drummers Drumming

11 Pipers Piping

10 Lords-a-Leaping

9 Ladies Dancing

8 Maids-a-Milking

7 Swans-a-Swimming

6 Geese-a-Laying

5 Gold Rings

4 Colly Birds

3 French Hens

2 Turtle Doves

And a Partridge in a Pear Tree.

The earliest known version of the lyrics was published under the title The Twelve Days of Christmas sung at King Pepin’s Ball, as part of a 1780 children’s book titled Mirth without Mischief. Subsequent versions have shown considerable variation. In the early versions “my true love sent to me” the gifts. However, a twentieth-century variant has “my true love gave to me”; this wording has become particularly common in North America. Additionally, the 1780 version has “four colly birds” — “colly” being a regional English expression for “black”. This wording must have been opaque to many even in the nineteenth century: “canary birds”, “colour’d birds”, “curley birds”, and “corley birds” are found in its place. Frederic Austin’s 1909 version, which introduced the now-standard melody, also altered the fourth day’s gift to four calling birds, and this variant has become the most popular.

In Scotland, early in the 19th century, the recitation began: “The king sent his lady on the first Yule day, | A popingo-aye [parrot]; | Wha learns my carol and carries it away?” The succeeding gifts were two partridges, three plovers, a goose that was grey, three starlings, three goldspinks, a bull that was brown, three ducks a-merry laying, three swans a-merry swimming, an Arabian baboon, three hinds a-merry hunting, three maids a-merry dancing, three stalks o’ merry corn.

This is one of many alternative melodies to "The Twelve Days" published in the nineteenth centry. It was "collected by the late Mr. John Bell, of Gateshead, about eighty years ago" <em class=" src="http://www.janeausten.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Twelve_Days_Stokoe.png" width="332" height="186" />

This is one of many alternative melodies to “The Twelve Days” published in the nineteenth centry. It was “collected by the late Mr. John Bell, of Gateshead, about eighty years ago” [i.e. around 1808]

Click Here to listen to this sample.

In the nineteenth century, most sources for the lyrics do not include music, and those that do often include music different from what has become the standard melody. Cecil Sharp’s Folk Songs from Somerset (1905) contains two different melodies for the song, both distinct from the now-standard melody.

In 1909, English composer Frederic Austin wrote an arrangement, published by Novello & Co., in which he added, to a traditional melody, his own 2-bar motif for “Five gold rings”. The melody from Austin’s arrangement has since become standard. Austin’s was also one of the earliest, and possibly the earliest, to substitute “Four calling birds” for the earlier “Colly birds”.


Historical information from Wikipedia.com.

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