12 days of Christmas: Lyrics, gifts, and meaning

What does a partridge in a pear tree have to do with anything?  (PA)
What does a partridge in a pear tree have to do with anything? (PA)

It’s arguably one of the most well-known Christmas carols out there, but when exactly are the 12 days of Christmas?

The traditional festive tune lists all the gifts the singer receives over the 12-day Christmas period, with each verse building on the next one.

The actual 12 days of Christmas stems from Christian theology. Commercialisation has, of course, led the event to become a shopping extravaganza that begins in October!

So when are the 12 days of Christmas and who wrote the carol? Here’s what you need to know:

When are the 12 days of Christmas?

The 12 days of Christmas begins on December 25 and runs through to January 6.

In Christian theology, this time period marks the span between the birth of Christ and the coming of the Magi, the three wise men.

The four weeks preceding Christmas are collectively known as Advent – which is where the term ‘advent calendar’ comes from – and ends on December 24.

How are the 12 days of Christmas celebrated?

Only six ladies dancing (PA)
Only six ladies dancing (PA)

A number of saints are observed during this period, including St Stephen on December 26.

Other festive activities will also take place between family and friends, including the decoration of Christmas trees.

When was the 12 days of Christmas written?

The origins of the carol aren’t completely clear, but the earliest recorded version was in a 1780 children’s book called Mirth With-out Mischief.

There’s a general consensus among historians that the ditty was originally designed as a memory game, intended to test the players' recall of the lyrics.

The lyrics to the song have also changed over time. For example, some versions name the singer’s mother as the gift giver as opposed to their true love.

Earlier versions also reference a “colly” bird – an old term meaning black as coal – instead of what we hear today as “calling” bird.

The man responsible for that adaption was English composer Frederic Austin, who set the melody and lyrics in 1909 and added the best part of the whole song – “five go-old rings".

12 days of Christmas lyrics:

Day 1: a partridge in a pear tree

Day 2: two turtle doves

Day 3: three French hens

Day 4: four calling birds

Day 5: five gold rings

Day 6: six geese-a-laying

Day 7: seven swans a-swimming

Day 8: eight maids a-milking

Day 9: nine ladies dancing

Day 10: 10 lords a-leaping

Day 11: 11 pipers piping

Day 12: 12 drummers drumming

How many gifts are given in the 12 days of Christmas?

Altogether, the lucky singer receives a total of 364 gifts.