The Mysteries of ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’

No one is quite sure what the most rewritable holiday song means.

Welcome to The 12 Days of Christmas Songs: an attempt to uncover the forgotten history of some of the most memorable festive tunes. From December 14 through 25, we’ll be tackling one secular song and one holy song each day.

For a crash course in the strange and ever-changing nature of holiday traditions, head to the Wikipedia page for “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” There, you will find that the exact origins of the counting carol are murky, but probably involve French folk songs for the New Year. You will find no agreement about the meaning of the 12 individual gifts—the partridge in a pair tree, the ladies dancing—though you will find speculation; one persistent but unsubstantiated claim says the song was invented to allow persecuted Catholics to practice the catechism in secret. You will find a staggering number of variants in the kinds of objects mentioned, the number of items, and even the syllables in some verses, depending on where and when the song is sung. You will learn that “four calling birds” were once “four colly birds,” colly being an old regional English word for “black.”

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is probably the best song to encapsulate the fragmented thing that Christmas has become across culture and across the centuries. By counting to 12 days, it reminds of Christmas’s larger religious-seasonal context, connecting December 25 and January 6, Epiphany (though depending on when you start counting, the beginning point might be Boxing Day, December 26, and the end point might be Feast of Epiphany, January 5). But the extreme specificity of its lyrics, and the way that they are a bit bizarre to a modern audience—who gives one lord a-leaping, much less eight?—reminds carolers that they are taking part in something much older and bigger than them, something essentially unknowable. It turns the sometimes crass-seeming practice of Christmas gift giving into something noble and lovely and weird; its extremely repetitive nature might even convey something about the recurrence of the holidays, or at least about their dull inevitability.

The musical structure, set in place by a 1909 English composer’s sheet music, is an impressive example of how repetition in music best succeeds when accompanied by variation, hence you have moments such as when the time signature changes for “five golden rings.” This makes the song as fun as it is to sing, and maybe even more fun to rewrite. All major Christmas songs have been covered and deconstructed countless times, but “Twelve Days of Christmas” updates—or defacements—are especially potent because the song already seems like a Mad Lib. Earlier this year, the RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Katya released a filthy/funny parody, which is very much in line with a tradition of vulgarizing “The Twelve Days of Christmas”: Think Fay McKay’s “Twelve Daze of Christmas,” where the gifts are alcohol and the performer gets drunker as she goes along.

Which made me wonder whether there’s a countertradition from the other side of the culture wars, of churches rewiring the cryptic, antique-like words of the song to be more straightforwardly evangelical. Sure enough, there are a lot of “Christian Twelve Days of Christmas”es on YouTube. The first onstage choir I watched opened this way: “On the first day of Christmas, my savior gave to me / The light so the blind can now see.”