At this point in the month, you’ve probably heard multiple renditions of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” dozens of times. The almost-endless song, with its 12 repetitive verses, describes gifts given by a “true love” on each day of Christmas. It was first published in England in the 18th century, but its past and its meaning have been open to various interpretations over the years.

The 12 days

In the Christian tradition, the 12 days of Christmas begin on Christmas day (December 25) and end 12 days later with the Epiphany. That’s how long it took the wise men to travel to Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus, though the exact days and what you’re celebrating vary depending on where you worship.

The song

The version most people are familiar with begins with this verse:

On the first day of Christmas,

My true love sent to me

A partridge in a pear tree.

This version is the work of Frederic Austin, an English composer who wrote it in 1909. A new gift is added each day.

Day 2: two turtle doves

Day 3: three French hens

Day 4: four calling birds

Day 5: five gold rings (“golden” rings in the U.S.)

Day 6: six geese-a-laying

Day 7: seven swans-a-swimming

Day 8: eight maids-a-milking

Day 9: nine ladies dancing

Day 10: 10 lords-a-leaping

Day 11: 11 pipers piping

Day 12: 12 drummers drumming

Debunking the meaning

But why these lyrics? What is the song actually about? Some Christians, often in widely shared posts on Facebook, have claimed the gifts in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” are coded references to Christianity. They suggest the song was written to help Christians learn and pass on their faith while avoiding persecution. 

Under this theory, the two turtle doves are the Old and New Testament, the six geese a-laying are the six days of creation, the eight maids a-milking are the eight beatitudes, and so on. In this interpretation, the partridge in the pear tree is Jesus himself.

But this theory was roundly debunked by the folks at Snopes, who found many flaws in the case for “The Twelve Days of Christmas” being a secret Christian song. Most importantly, “There is absolutely no documentation or supporting evidence for this claim whatsoever, other than mere repetition of the claim itself.”

On top of that, “The claim appears to date only to the 1990s, marking it as likely an invention of modern day speculation rather than historical fact.”

The cost of Christmas

Perhaps the song is really about that age-old Christmas pastime: consumerism. Maybe it’s even responsible for the excessive gift-giving associated with the holiday.

The PNC Christmas Price Index calculates the cost of the gifts in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” each year. In 2019 the total for all the swans-a-swimming and maids-a-milking and so on would be a whopping $38,993.59 a 95% increase from when the index started in 1984.

If you’re interested, here’s how the prices breakdown:

  1. Partridge in a Pear Tree — $210.17
  2. Two Turtle Doves — $300.00
  3. Three French Hens — $181.50
  4. Four Calling Birds — $599.96
  5. Five Gold Rings — $825.00
  6. Six Geese-a-Laying — $420.00
  7. Seven Swans-a-swimming — $13,125.00 (whoa!)
  8. Eight Maids-a-Milking — $58.00 (based on minimum wage)
  9. Nine Ladies Dancing — $7,552.84
  10. Ten Lords-a-Leaping — $10,000.00
  11. Eleven Pipers Piping — $2,748.87
  12. Twelve Drummers Drumming — $2,972.25

Who knew swans were so expensive? Perhaps it’s because Queen Elizabeth II owns so many of the swans. Yes, bizarrely, the British monarch owns all unmarked “mute swans” in open water in the UK.

Whatever your interpretation, at least this will give you something to think about as you enter verse 11 at your child or grandchild’s holiday concert.