“On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me …”
It’s a holiday song most everyone knows and can sing … at least the first five gifts. After “Five golden rings!” the gifts can start to get mixed up.
This cumulative song, as it’s known, was first published in 1780 as an English Christmas song without music, chant or rhyme. The Oxford Dictionary of Rhyme says it is thought it might have been French in origin.
In 1909, English composer Frederic Austin produced an arrangement of the song familiar to everyone today. In fact, Austin introduced the fifth day’s distinctive emphasis on “five gold rings.”
But what does it mean?
But what about the lyrics? What do they mean? Who would give someone eight maids a-milking? Sounds ridiculous, right?
Some believe there’s hidden meaning in the lyrics.
One of the most persistent theories is the song was devised as a catechism learning tool, used when it was illegal and often dangerous to practice Catholicism in England after the Anglican Reformation, from the mid-16th century until the early 1800s. It’s theorized that each day was a memory aid to represent the tenants of the Catholic faith.
The “true love” refered to God. The single partridge in a pear tree was a reference to Jesus Christ. Other symbols are:
2 turtle doves—the Old and New Testaments
3 French horns—faith, hope and charity, the theological virtues
4 calling birds—the four gospels, Four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John)
5 gold rings—the first five books of the Old Testament, also known as the Pentateuch
6 geese a-laying—the six days of creation
7 swans a-swimming—the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 maids a-milking—the eight beatitudes
9 ladies dancing—the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 lords a-leaping—the 10 commandments
11 pipers piping—the 11 faithful apostles
12 drummers drumming—the 12 points in the Apostle’s Creed
Another theory is the song was designed as a “memory-and-forfeits” game where verses were added until a participant made a mistake and had to “pay” the price of offering a kiss or a sweet.
What’s not disputed is the 12 days of Christmas are the days between Christmas and Epiphany, Dec. 25 and Jan. 6, respectively.
It costs how much?
A more recent tradition, begun in 1984 by the Provident National Bank in Pennsylvania, was to assign current-year prices to the gifts. Each year, PNC Bank updates the cost.
The cost of the 12 days of Christmas is broken down into two categories: The Christmas Price Index, or the cost of one set of each gift, and the True Cost of Christmas, or the cumulative cost of all 364 gifts.
For 2016, the Christmas Price Index is $21,238.49, less the cost of the swans. The PNC website doesn’t exactly explain why the swans were omitted from the overall cost. If the swan cost is added back into the total, the price becomes $33,363.49.
The True Cost of Christmas—cumulative cost of all 364 gifts—is $156,507.88.
Just something to think about when singing one of the more iconic Christmas songs.