“Twelve Days” Song

December 6, 2016


The story goes that when being a Catholic was illegal in Protestant England, children would sing this song to profess their faith: the partridge and the pear tree symbolized Jesus Christ. Design by Meredith Eliassen, 2016. NOTECARD

The twelve days in the song are the twelve days starting with Christmas Day, or on Boxing (December 26th) and ending on the Twelfth Night (January 6). The most common English-language version this song was published in a children’s book called Mirth without Mischief (1780) as a “memories-and-forfeits” game called “Twelfth Night.” The leader in this game recited a verse, each of the players repeated the verse, the leader added another verse, and so on until one of the players makes a mistake, with the player who erred having to pay a penalty, such as offering up a kiss or a treat. The lyrics to “The Twelve Days of Christmas” may have served as a catechism song for young Catholics when the practice of Catholicism was criminalized in England between 1558 and 1829.