Twelve Days of Christmas: An Analysis

The Twelve Days of Christmas is one of the best known, and arguably more exhausting and annoying, Christmas songs in existence. It’s so complex and has been around for so long, one might expect it to have vanished from the carol canon decades ago.

However, the carol lives on, as do the stories and legends behind it, and the projects it has inspired. Origin stories float around social media every year. Perhaps the most popular claims that the carol was a way for Catholics in King James I’s era to express their faith without fear of persecution (the partridge is Jesus Christ, the three French hens are faith, hope, and charity, and so on). Another origin story claims every gift in the carol is a different bird, not just the gifts directly associated with birds (e.g., "five golden rings" refers to ring-necked pheasants).

Along with this, touching or funny riffs on the carol are found in almost every fandom and subculture (Harry Potter, Redneck 12 Days, 12 Days based around political satire, and more). Hallmark’s expansive list of holiday movies includes no less than two based on the conceit of giving 12 meaningful gifts. Even some of today’s more orthodox church denominations (Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and others), still treat Christmas as a 12-day affair, ending on the Day of Epiphany.

Examine how and why the 12 Days of Christmas, song and concept, are so ingrained in our culture even if not everyone celebrates the holiday as such. Pick a few origin stories or 12 Days-inspired projects to analyze. What does this carol and concept mean for us? What is it about the concept that has staying power, even if some people dislike the song? Are some inspired projects better at capturing the spirit of 12 Days than others? What might a literal or figurative "12 Days" look like for secularized culture, and would it make the holidays better or worse? Both? Discuss.

  • The reason why "12 Days of Christmas" is as long and convoluted as it is is that it's an elaborate metaphor. Each verse of the song is meant to represent a different aspect of Christian (especially Catholic) observance. It was written in England during a time when Catholics faced persecution, so in order to teach what made their own faith unique, they had to be sneaky about it--hence why the song never refers to Catholicism directly even as it uses a lot of Catholic imagery. Some of the songs sung on the Jewish holiday of Passover operate in a similar way. – Debs 5 months ago

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