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The History of the 12 Days of Christmas

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We all know that Irving Berlin wrote the song, White Christmas and that Bing Crosby was the first crooner to sing it. However not all Christmas songs, like the 12 Days of Christmas, have such a clear well-defined history.

The ‘song’ was first published in England in 1780, and was titled "The Twelve Days of Christmas sung at King Pepin's Ball", as part of a 1780 children's book, ‘Mirth without Mischief’. Originally it did not have music and was more of a rhyme or a chant.

Another tidbit, the 12 Days of Christmas doesn’t end on Christmas Day. In fact, it STARTS on Christmas Day, and continues for 12 days until January 5th, the day before the Epiphany. The song is called a ‘cumulative’ song, which means each verse is built on top of the previous verses. In this song, each new verse, adds another gift, and the gifts increase in value.

Many believe that the song was taught as a memory game to children. The game was called ‘Forfeits’, and when a child got a verse incorrect, that child was knocked out of the game.  

The song has had many different lyric variations throughout the years. The lyrics used today are from Frederic Austin's 1909 publication that established the current form of the song in a carol. The verses of the song we sing today are from his version. Here are some examples of other verse variations from the 1800’s and 1900’s.

  • Eight maids a-milking was also written as: 
    • Eight hares a-running
    • Eight boys a-singing
    • Eight hounds a-running
  • Nine ladies dancing was written as:
    • Nine bears a-beating
    • Nine bulls a-roaring
    • Nine lambs a-bleating
  •  Ten lords a-leaping was written as:
    • Ten ships a-sailing
    • Ten men a-mowing
    • Ten cocks a-crowing

These verses made sense back in the day, but as time passed, the current version is what was settled on, at least for now. Who knows, maybe someday there will be a verse with 12 Martians marching. 

Other countries have a similar carol, but completely different verses in their songs when playing ‘Forfeits’. 

A Swedish version has 12 verses featuring… one hen, two barley seeds, three grey geese, four pounds of pork, six flayed sheep, a sow with six pigs, seven åtting grain, eight grey foals with golden saddles, nine newly born cows, ten pairs of oxen, eleven clocks, and finally twelve churches. 

And the Faroe Islands, which are part of the Kingdom of Denmark, have 15 gifts. The gifts include… one feather, two geese, three sides of meat, four sheep, five cows, six oxen, seven dishes, eight ponies, nine banners, ten barrels, eleven goats, twelve men, thirteen hides, fourteen rounds of cheese, and fifteen deer.

Try playing one of these different ‘Forfeit’ songs with your children, or even with your friends this holiday, it is much tougher than you think. Challenge yourself to come up with your own version for some new, fun holiday cheer. And, maybe have the 12 Days of Christmas playing in the background.

Happy Holidays


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