The Twelve Days of Christmas

"The Twelve Days of Christmas"

Originally this was a secular love song. It sounds to be by a single woman, whose "True Love", a man, sent her gifts. It was probably originally sung in the French language.

The first day of Christmas my true love sent to me
A parteridge in a pear tree.
(Now "partridge")

The second day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Two turtle doves
And a parteridge in a pear tree.

The third day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Three French Hens
Two turtle doves
And a parteridge in a pear tree.

The fourth day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Four Colly birds . . .
(Now "Calling birds", but originally "Colly birds" = black birds., "Colly" means "black as coal" in old English, as in "colliery".)

The fifth day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Five gold rings . . .
(Originally these were pictured as "golden ring"-necked pheasants, not jewelry. All the first five gifts were birds.)

The sixth day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Six geese a-laying . . .

The seventh day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Seven swans swimming . . .
Now "a-swimming"

The eighth day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Eight maids a-milking . . .

The ninth day of Christmas my true Love sent to me
Nine drummers drumming . . .

The tenth day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Ten pipers piping . . .

The eleventh day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Eleven ladies dancing . . .

The twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Twelve lords a-leaping,
Eleven ladies dancing,
Ten pipers piping,
Nine drummers drumming,
Eight maids a-milking,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five gold rings,
Four Colly birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a parteridge in a pear tree.

In modern versions, the "lords, ladies, pipers, drummers" are often switched around.

from "4000 Years of Christmas" by Earl W. Count (1948) New York: Henry Schuman

According to some Roman Catholics, this carol might also have been used as a memory aid for teaching the Christian faith, but this is contradicted at In particular, from 1558 until 1829, Roman Catholics in England were not allowed to practice their Faith openly. At that time (according to those Roman Catholics), this traditional English carol was adopted as a catechism song for young Catholics. For them, it had two levels of meaning: the original surface meaning as a love song, plus later hidden religious meanings. The hidden meanings parallel the verses of the Anglican catechism song "A New Dial" about the numbers on a sun-dial, and, in modern times, the religious connotations in the popular song "Deck of Cards".

One 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.

Four calling birds were the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Five golden rings recalled the Torah or Law, the first five books of the Old Testament.

Six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation.

Seven swans a-swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit: prophesy, serving, teaching, exortation, contribution, leadership, and mercy.

Eight maids a-milking were the eight beatitudes.

From here on, the order is different from the original song!

Nine ladies dancing were the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

Ten lords a-leaping were the ten commandments.

Eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful disciples.

Twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in the Apostles' Creed.

Information from Catholic Information and Urban Legends websites


The Twelve Days

The "12 days" originated when days began at sunset. They went from sunset on Dec 25th to sunset on Jan. 6th. Because days now start at midnight, in some places the 12 days start on Dec. 25th, in others on Dec. 26th.

Sometimes Christmas is reckoned as one of the Twelve Days, sometimes not. In the former case, of course, the Epiphany is the thirteenth day. In England we call the Epiphany Twelfth Day, in Germany it is generally called Thirteenth; in Belgium and Holland it is Thirteenth; in Sweden it varies, but is usually Thirteenth. Sometimes then the Twelve Days are spoken of, sometimes the Thirteen. "The Twelve Nights;" in accordance with the old Teutonic mode of reckoning by nights, is a natural and correct term.

Whatever the limits fixed for the beginning and end of the Christmas festival, its core is always the period between Christmas Eve and the Epiphany - the "Twelve Days." A cycle of feasts falls within this time, and the customs peculiar to each day will be treated in calendarial order. First, however, it will be well to glance at the character of the Twelve Days as a whole, and at the superstitions which hang about the season. So many are these superstitions, so "bewitched" is the time, that the older mythologists not unnaturally saw in it a Teutonic festal season, dating from pre-Christian days. In point of fact it appears to be simply a creation of the Church, a natural linking together of Christmas and Epiphany. It is first mentioned as a festal tide by the eastern Father, Ephraem Syrus, at the end of the fourth century, and was declared to be such by the western Council of Tours in 567 A.D.

While Christmas Eve is the night par excellence of the supernatural, the whole season of the Twelve Days is charged with it. It is hard to see whence Shakespeare could have got the idea which he puts into the mouth of Marcellus in "Hamlet":-

"Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Savior's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time."

Against this is the fact that in folk-lore Christmas is a quite peculiarly uncanny time. Not unnatural is it that at this midwinter season of darkness, howling winds, and raging storms, men should have thought to see and hear the mysterious shapes and voices of dread beings whom the living shun.

Throughout the Teutonic world one finds the belief in a "raging host " or "wild hunt " or spirits, rushing howling through the air on stormy nights. In North Devon its name is "Yeth (heathen) hounds"; elsewhere in the west of England it is called the "Wish hounds." It is the train of the unhappy souls of those who died unbaptized, or by violent hands, or under a curse, and often Woden is their leader. At least since the seventeenth century this "raging host " (das wuthende Heer) has been particularly associated with Christmas in German folk-lore, and in Iceland it goes by the name of the "Yule host."

In Guernsey the powers of darkness are supposed to be more than usually active between St. Thomas's Day and New Year's Eve, and it is dangerous to be out after nightfall. People are led astray then by Will o' the Wisp, or are preceded or followed by large black dogs, or find their path beset by white rabbits that go hopping along just under their feet.

In England there are signs that supernatural visitors were formerly looked for during the Twelve Days. First there was a custom of cleansing the house and its implements with peculiar care. In Shropshire, for instance, "the pewter and brazen vessels had to be made so bright that the maids could see to put their caps on in them - otherwise the fairies would pinch them, but if all was perfect, the worker would find a coin in her shoe." Again in Shropshire special care was taken to put away any suds or "backlee" for washing purposes, and no spinning might be done during the Twelve Days. It was said elsewhere that if any flax were left on the distaff, the Devil would come and cut it.

The prohibition of spinning may be due to the Church's hallowing of the season and the idea that all work then was wrong. This churchly hallowing may lie also at the root of the Danish tradition that from Christmas till New Year's Day nothing that runs round should be set in motion, and of the German idea that no thrashing must be done during the Twelve Days, or all the corn within hearing will spoil. The expectation or uncanny visitors in the English traditions calls, however, for special attention; it is perhaps because of their coming that the house must be left spotlessly clean and with as little as possible about on which they can work mischief. Though I know of no distinct English belief in the return or the family dead at Christmas, it may be that the fairies expected in Shropshire were originally ancestral ghosts. Such a derivation of the elves and brownies that haunt the hearth is very probable.

The belief about the Devil cutting flax left on the distaff links the English superstitions to the mysterious Frau with various names, who in Germany is supposed to go her rounds during the Twelve Nights. She has a special relation to spinning, often punishing girls who leave their flax unspun. In central Germany and in parts of Austria she is called Frau Holle or Holda, in southern Germany and Tyrol Frau Berchta or Perchta, in the north down to the Harz Mountains Frau Freen or Frick, or Fru Gode or Fru Harke, and there are other names too. Attempts have been made to dispute her claim to the rank of an old Teutonic goddess and to prove her a creation of the Middle Ages, a representative of the crowd of ghosts supposed to be specially near to the living at Christmastide. It is questionable whether she can be thus explained away, and at the back of the varying names, and much overlaid no doubt with later superstitions, there may be a traditional goddess corresponding to that old divinity Frigg to whom we owe the name of Friday. The connection of Frick with Frigg is very probable, and Frick shares characteristics with the other Frauen.

All are connected with spinning and spinsters (in the literal sense). Fru Frick or Freen in the Uckermark and the northern Harz permits no spinning during the time when she goes her rounds, and if there are lazy spinsters she soils the unspun flax on their distaff. In like manner do Holda, Harke, Berchta, and Gode punish lazy girls.

The characters of the Frauen can best be shown by the things told of them in different regions. They are more dreaded than loved, but if severe in their chastisements they are also generous in rewarding those who do them service.

Frau Gaude (also called Gode, Gaue, or Wode) is said in Mecklenburg to love to drive through the village streets on the Twelve Nights with a train of dogs. Wherever she finds a street-door open she sends a little dog in. Next morning he wags his tail at the inmates and whines, and will not be driven away. If killed, he turns into a stone by day; this, though it may be thrown away, always returns and is a dog again by night. All through the year he whines and brings ill luck upon the house; so people are careful to keep their street-doors shut during the Twelve Nights.

Good luck, however, befalls those who do Frau Gaude a service. A man who put a new pole to her carriage was brilliantly repaid - the chips that fell from the pole turned to glittering gold. Similar stories of golden chips are told about Holda and Berchta.

A train of dogs belongs not only to Frau Gaude but also to Frau Harke; with these howling beasts they go raging through the air by night. The Frauen in certain aspects are, indeed, the leaders of the "Wild Host." [c.f., the Valkyries!]

Holda and Perchta, as some strange stories show, are the guides and guardians of the heimchen or souls of children who have died unbaptized. In the valley of the Saale, so runs a tale, Perchta, queen of the heimchen, had her dwelling of old, and at her command the children watered the fields, while she worked with her plough. But the people of the place were ungrateful, and she resolved to leave their land. One night a ferryman beheld on the bank of the Saale a tall, stately lady with a crowd of weeping children. She demanded to be ferried across, and the children dragged a plough into the boat, crying bitterly. As a reward for the ferrying, Perchta, mending her plough, pointed to the chips. The man grumblingly took three, and in the morning they had turned to gold-pieces.

Holda, whose name means "the kindly one," is the most friendly of the Frauen. In Saxony she brings rewards for diligent spinsters, and on every New Year's Eve, between nine and ten o'clock, she drives in a carriage full of presents through villages where respect has been shown to her. At the crack of her whip the people come out to receive her gifts. In Hesse and Thuringia she is imagined as a beautiful woman clad in white with long golden hair, and, when it snows hard, people say, "Frau Holle is shaking her featherbed."

More of a bugbear on the whole is Berchte or Perchte (the name is variously spelt). She is particularly connected with the Eve of the Epiphany, and it is possible that her name comes from the old German giper(c)hta Na(c)ht, the bright or shining night, referring to the manifestation of Christ's glory. In Carinthia the Epiphany is still called Berchtentag. [but Nacht giperchta bears similarities to Knecht Ruprecht.]

Berchte is sometimes a bogey to frighten children. In the mountains round Traunstein children are told on Epiphany Eve that if they are naughty she will come and cut their stomachs open. In Upper Austria the girls must finish their spinning by Christmas; if Frau Berch finds flax still on their distaffs she will be angered and send them bad luck.

In the Orlagau (between the Saale and the Orle) on the night before Twelfth Day, Perchta examines the spinning-rooms and brings the spinners empty reels with directions to spin them full within a very brief time; if this is not done she punishes them by tangling and befouling the flax. She also cuts open the body of any one who has not eaten zemmede (fasting fare made of flour and milk and water) that day, takes out any other food he has had, fills the empty space with straw and bricks, and sews him up again 64 And yet, as we have seen, she has a kindly side - at any rate she rewards those who serve her - and in Styria at Christmas she even plays the part of Santa Klaus, hearing children repeat their prayers and rewarding them with nuts and apples.

There is a charming Tyrolese story about her. At midnight on Epiphany Eve a peasant - not too sober - suddenly heard behind him "a sound of many voices, which came on nearer and nearer, and then the Berchtl, in her white clothing, her broken ploughshare in her hand, and all her train of little people, swept clattering and chattering close past him. The least was the last, and it wore a long shirt which got in the way of its little bare feet, and kept tripping it up. The peasant had sense enough left to feel compassion, so he took his garter off and bound it for a girdle round the infant, and then set it again on its way. When the Berchtl saw what he had done, she turned back and thanked him, and told him that in return for his compassion his children should never come to want."

In Tyrol, by the way, it is often said that the Perchtl is Pontius Pilate's wife, [traditionally named] Procula. In the Italian dialects of south Tyrol the German Frau Berchta has been turned into la donna Berta. If one goes further south, into Italy itself, one meets with a similar being, the Befana, whose name is plainly nothing but a corruption of Epiphania. She is so distinctly a part of the Epiphany festival that we may leave her to be considered later.

Of all supernatural Christmas visitors, the most vividly realized and believed in at the present day are probably the Greek Kallikantzaroi or Karkantzaroi. They are the terror of the Greek peasant during the Twelve Days; in the soil of his imagination they flourish luxuriantly, and to him they are a very real and living nuisance.

Traditions about the Kallikantzaroi vary from region to region, but in general they are half-animal, half-human monsters, black, hairy, with huge heads, glaring red eyes, goats' or asses' ears, blood-red tongues hanging out, ferocious tusks, monkeys' arms, and long curved nails, and commonly they have the foot of some beast. "From dawn till sunset they hide themselves in dark and dank places .., but at night they issue forth and run wildly to and fro, rending and crushing those who cross their path. Destruction and waste, greed and lust mark their course." When a house is not prepared against their coming, "by chimney and door alike they swarm in, and make havoc of the home; in sheer wanton mischief they overturn and break all the furniture, devour the Christmas pork, befoul all the water and wine and food which remains, and leave the occupants half dead with fright or violence." Many like or far worse pranks do they play, until at the crowing of the third cock they get them away to their dens. The signal for their final departure does not come until the Epiphany, when the "Blessing of the Waters" takes place. Some of the hallowed water is put into vessels, and with these and with incense the priests sometimes make a round of the village, sprinkling the people and their houses. The fear of the Kallikantzaroi at this purification is expressed in the following lines:-

"Quick, begone! we must begone,
Here comes the pot-bellied priest,
With his censer in his hand
And his sprinkling-vessel too;
He has purified the streams
And he has polluted us."

Besides this ecclesiastical purification there are various Christian precautions against the Kallikantzaroi - e.g., to mark the house-door with a black cross on Christmas Eve, the burning of incense and the invocation of the Trinity - and a number of other means of aversion: the lighting of the Yule log, the burning of something that smells strong, and - perhaps as a peace-offering - the hanging of pork-bones, sweetmeats, or sausages in the chimney.

Just as men are sometimes believed to become vampires temporarily during their lifetime, so, according to one stream of tradition, do living men become Kallikantzaroi. In Greece children born at Christmas are thought likely to have this objectionable characteristic as a punishment for their mothers' sin in bearing them at a time sacred to the Mother of God. In Macedonia people who have a "light" guardian angel undergo the hideous transformation.

Many attempts have been made to account for the Kallikantzaroi. Perhaps the most plausible explanation of the outward form, at least, of the uncanny creatures, is the theory connecting them with the masquerades that formed part of the winter festival of Dionysus and are still to be found in Greece at Christmastide. The hideous bestial shapes, the noise and riot, may well have seemed demoniacal to simple people slightly "elevated," perhaps, by Christmas feasting, while the human nature of the maskers was not altogether forgotten. Another theory of an even more prosaic character has been propounded that the Kallikantzaroi are nothing more than established nightmares, limited like indigestion to the twelve days of feasting. This view is taken by Allatius, who says that a Kallikantzaros has all the characteristics of nightmare, rampaging abroad and jumping on men's shoulders, then leaving them half senseless on the ground."

Such theories are ingenious and suggestive, and may be true to a certain degree, but they hardly cover all the facts. It is possible that the Kallikantzaroi may have some connection with the departed; they certainly appear akin to the modern Greek and Slavonic vampire, "a corpse imbued with a kind of half-life," and with eyes gleaming like live coals. They are, however, even more closely related to the werewolf, a man who is supposed to change into a wolf and go about ravening. It is to be noted that "man-wolves" is the very name given to the Kallikantzaroi in southern Greece, and that the word Kallikantzaros itself has been conjecturally derived by Bernhard Schmidt from two Turkish words meaning "black" and "werewolf." The connection between Christmas and werewolves is not confined to Greece. According to a belief not yet extinct in the north and east of Germany, even where the real animals have long ago been extirpated, children born during the Twelve Nights become werewolves, while in Livonia and Poland that period is the special season for the werewolf's ravenings.

Perhaps on no question connected with primitive religion is there more uncertainty than on the ideas of early man about the nature of animals and their relation to himself and the world. When we meet with half-animal, half-human beings we must be prepared to find much that is obscure.

With the Kallikantzaroi may be compared some goblins of the Celtic imagination; especially like is the Manx Fynnodderee (lit. "the hairy-dun one"), "something between a man and a beast, being covered with black shaggy hair and having fiery eyes," and prodigiously strong. The Russian Domovy or house-spirit is also a hirsute creature, and the Russian Ljeschi, goat-footed woodland sprites, are, like the Kallikantzaroi, supposed to be got rid of by the "Blessing of the Waters" at the Epiphany. Some of the monstrous German figures already dealt with here bear strong resemblances to the Greek demons. And, of course, on Greek ground one cannot help thinking of Pan and the Satyrs and Centaurs.

Those who wish to pursue further the study of the Kallikantzaroi should read the elaborate and fascinating, if not altogether convincing, theories of Mr. J. C. Lawson in his "Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion." He distinguishes two classes of Kallikantzaroi, one of which he identifies with ordinary werewolves, while the other is the type of hairy, clawed demons above described. He sets forth a most ingenious hypothesis connecting them with the Centaurs.

Excerpted from Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan, by Clement A. Miles, London: T. Fisher Unwin, 2nd Ed. 1913, pp. 229-247

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