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The "Twelve Days of Christmas"....How it came to be



     I asked Stanford's ever-helpful information specialist Eric Heath about the origin of the "Twelve Days of Christmas." He quotes the New Oxford Book of Carols (p. 469):
     "This song derives from a traditional forfeits game which was played on Twelfth Night (hence the 12 days). Each player would have to remember and recite the objects named by the previous players and then add one more. The game was probably universal, but the song seems to be of Gallic origin."
     It then goes on to point out variants of wording--that, for example, gold rings may be a corruption of 'goldspinks', which is goldfinches in Scottish dialect, etc. The partridge has been sometimes identified as the Devil, and there's a folk belief that a girl walking backwards towards a pear tree on Christmas Eve, then walking around it twice, will see her future husband. The text appears in print on broadsides from the early 18th century onward.
     The tune most of us know is a "modern one" dating from 19th century England, with the notes of the "five gold rings" dating from Frederick Austin's 1909 arrangement.
     The words are also included in the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, 1951, pp.119-124, with historical notes. The notes point out that the items in the list for the twelve days could vary wildly, as the whole point was to challenge the memories of the other players and win the "forfeit". So, perhaps there were "secret" versions. In the field of folk memory, anything in possible. But the notes make no mention of any deeply pious intentions.
     It is, after all, a Twelfth Night fireside song -- a time for fun and frolic and games and gifts, not for confessions of faith. But, then, as Shakespeare points out in "Twelfth Night", there is always that festival time tension between the pious and the fun loving. Ah well...


     My comment: Living in Silicon Valley, I depend on my computer for memory. This song goes back to a time when human memory was important. I would be happy to play the game on computers.
     The Catholic Church has a tradition of adapting non-Christian activities to the tenets of the faith. The origin is then forgotten. Adding the story of anti-Catholic persecution adds to the thrill. Eric Heath agrees that there is nothing in the religious version of the song which would involve persecution.

Ronald Hilton - 12/23/99


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