What did my true love give to me on the first day of Christmas?

Dec 13, 2021

Ask anyone that question and it’s likely that they’ll be able to tell you. Belting out ‘a partridge in a pear tree’ and the better-after-a-few-mulled-wines, ‘five gold rings!’, feels like a rite of passage each Christmas. 

But where do the lyrics come from and what on earth do they mean?

Theory 1

There’s a popular theory that each of the verses represents a catechism of the Catholic faith. The theory goes that the original rhyme (it wasn’t arranged to the tune we know now until 1909) was written in the 1700s by Catholic clerics as a way of teaching children about the central aspects of the faith. Its first printed appearance was in the 1780 book Mirth Without Mischief, although evidence suggests it existed before this.

The religious interpretations of each verse are as follows:

  1. A partridge in a Pear Tree represents Jesus, because a mother partridge is the only bird that will die for its young
  2. Turtle Doves represent The Old and New Testaments
  3. French Hens symbolise Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
  4. Calling Birds represent the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
  5. Golden Rings represent The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the ‘Pentateuch’, which gives the history of man’s fall from grace
  6. Geese A-laying symbolise the six days of creation
  7. Swans A-swimming represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
  8. Maids A-milking symbolise the eight Beatitudes, the blessings listed by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount
  9. Ladies Dancing represent the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
  10. Lords A-Leaping refer to the Ten Commandments
  11. Pipers Piping symbolise the eleven faithful Apostles
  12. Drummers Drumming represent the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed

Sadly (because the TPW Collective loves unravelling hidden meanings!), it seems that this theory is pure conjecture. First circulated in the 1990s on an internet forum, it appears that this may simply be a fanciful tale that has gained in popularity, as there is no historical evidence to support the idea. On to the next theory then!

Theory 2

A much more likely explanation of the origin behind the – frankly quite bizarre – items in the lyrics is that the rhyme was a festive memory game. Games which required a group of children to take turns at verses of a rhyme, remembering what the child before had said, were very popular in the 1700s and 1800s. If a child forgot a lyric, a forfeit of a kiss or sweet was usually required from them.

This explanation has much more basis in historical fact so, whilst we enjoy a hidden meaning, we have to confess that it’s much more likely the song is adapted from an early playground game. It also goes some way to explaining why there are quite so many items, as well as why they’re repeated in each verse.

One thing we did learn from our brief delve into the etymology of this festive classic is that the ‘four calling birds’ originated as ‘four colly birds’, meaning ‘birds that are black as coal’. 

The 12 days of Christmas


However the song originated, all the gifts in the lyrics would set you back over £30,000 today. American financial services group PNC calculates how much the twelve gifts would cost each year in their annual Christmas Price Index! (A good read, if you have a couple of spare minutes).

Whether you’ll be spending £30,000 on an assortment of birds, musicians and milkmaids for your beloved, the twelve days start on Boxing Day and run until 6th January. We hope you get to enjoy every single one of them.

Subscribe to our newsletter

© The Power of Words. All rights reserved.  

Website by Essence.