"The Twelve Days of Christmas" is an English Christmas carol that enumerates in the manner of a cumulative song a series of increasingly grand gifts given on each of the twelve days of Christmas. The song, first published in England in 1780 without music as a chant or rhyme, is thought to be French in origin. The tunes of collected versions vary. The standard tune now associated with it is derived from a 1909 arrangement of a traditional folk melody by English composer Frederic Austin, who first introduced the now familiar prolongation of the verse "five gold rings”. The exact origins and the meaning of the song are unknown, but it is highly probable that it originated from children’s memory and forfeit game.
The twelve days in the song are the twelve days starting with Christmas Day, or in some traditions, the day after Christmas (December 26, to the day before Epiphany, or the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6, or the Twelfth Day). Twelfth Night is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "the evening of the fifth of January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of the Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking."
The best known English version was first printed in English in 1780 in a little book intended for children, Mirth without Mischief, as a Twelfth Night "memories-and-forfeits" game, in which a leader recited a verse, each of the players repeated the verse, the leader added another verse, and so on until one of the players made a mistake, with the player who erred having to pay a penalty, such as offering up a kiss or a sweet. One hundred years later, Lady Gomme, a collector of folktales and rhymes, described how it used to be played every Twelfth Day night before eating mince pies and twelfth cake.
"Twelve days of Christmas" was adapted from similar New Years' or spring French carols, of which at least three are known, all featuring a partridge, perdriz or perdriole, as the first gift. The pear tree appears in only the English version, but this could also indicate a French origin. According to Iona and Peter Opie, the red-legged (or French) partridge perches in trees more frequently than the native common (or grey) partridge and was not successfully introduced into England until about 1770. Cecil Sharp observed that "from the constancy in English, French, and Languedoc versions of the 'merry little partridge,' I suspect that 'pear-tree' is really perdrix (Old French pertriz) carried into England"; and "juniper tree" in some English versions may have been "joli perdrix," [pretty partridge]. Sharp also suggests the adjective "French" in "three French hens", probably simply means "foreign".
In the northern counties of England, the song was often called the "Ten Days of Christmas", as there were only ten gifts. It was also known in Somerset, Dorset shire, and elsewhere in England. The kinds of gifts vary in a number of the versions, some of them becoming alliterative tongue-twisters. "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was also widely popular in the United States and Canada.
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