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Project Britain

Christmas in Britain

by Mandy Barrow

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Twelve Days of Christmas
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The Origin of the Twelve Days of Christmas Song
Learn about Christmas in England from the children who live in Britain Christmas traditions why do what we do at chrsitmas time

There is great debate as to the meaning of the carol, 'The Twelve Days of Christmas'.

A Secret Code

A popular theory why we sing the song dates back to the time when Roman Catholics were not permitted to practice their faith openly (1558 until 1829). The song was written as a way of teaching young catholics and had two levels of meanings: a surface meaning and a hidden meaning known only to their church. Each element in the carol has a code word for a religious reality, which the children could remember.

The "true love" of the song refers to God.

The partridge in a pear tree was Jesus Christ.

Two Turtle Doves were the Old and New Testaments.

Three French Hens stood for Faith, Hope and love.

The four Colley Birds* were the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, luke and John.

The five Golden Rings recalled the Torah or law, the first five books of the Old Testament.

The six Geese A-laying stood for the six days of creation.

Seven Swans A-swimming represented the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: Prophecy, Serving, Teaching, Exhortation, Contribution, Leadership and Mercy.

The eight Maids A-milking were the eight beatitudes.

Nine Ladies Dancing were the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self Control.

The ten Lords A-leaping were the ten commandments.

The eleven Pipers Piping stood for the eleven faithful disciples.

The twelve Drummers Drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in The Apostle's Creed.

*Although most people say / sing "four calling birds", the actually birds are "four colley birds" (blackbirds).

A Children's Game

Another theory was the song originated from a children's game. Leigh Grant, in his book 'Twelve Days of Christmas: A Celebration and History', says the words from The Twelve Days of Christmas song first appeared in a book titled 'Mirth without Mischief' published in 1780s in England. The words were part of a memory and forfeits game played by children at that time. The leader recited the first verse, the next child recited the second verse, and this continued until someone missed his or her verse and had to pay some kind of penalty in the game. (The tune to the song is thought to date back much further and possibly originated from France.)

"The Twelve Days of Christmas" became popular at the "Twelfth night parties" that took place in the Christmas season.

How many gifts were handed out in the Twelve Day of Christmas song?

The answer is not 78 but 364, almost one for every day of the year.

On day one, the character in the song gets a single present (a partridge in a pear tree). But on day two, the beneficiary receives a new present (a pair of turtle doves) plus another partridge in a pear tree. Day three brings a second helping of day two's gifts, plus more new items (three French hens). This carries on all the way to the twelfth day when 12 drummers drumming, and new copies of all the previous day's gifts are received.

Table showing number of Presents received
Gift Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6 Day 7 Day 8 Day 9 Day 10 Day 11 Day 12 Total
Partridge in a pear tree 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 12
Turtle Doves 0 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 22
French Hens 0 0 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 30
Calling (Colly) Birds 0 0 0 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 36
Gold Rings 0 0 0 0 5 5 5 5 5 5 5 5 40
Geese a-laying 0 0 0 0 0 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 42
Swans a-swimming 0 0 0 0 0 0 7 7 7 7 7 7 42
Maids a-milking 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 8 8 8 8 8 40
Ladies dancing 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 9 9 9 9 36
Lords a-leaping 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 10 10 10 30
Pipers piping 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 11 11 22
Drummers drumming 00 0 0 0 00 0 0 0 0 0 0 12 12
Total 1 3 6 10 15 21 28 36 45 55 66 78 364


Wassail ceremonies took place during the 12 days of Christmas in attempts to counter the power of evil spirits.
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Mandy is the creator of the Woodlands Resources section of the Woodlands Junior website. 
The two websites and are the new homes for the Woodlands Resources.

Mandy left Woodlands in 2003 to work in Kent schools as an ICT Consulatant. 
She now teaches computers at The Granville School and St. John's Primary School in Sevenoaks Kent.

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