Quote of the Day: A Partridge in A Pear Tree, & the Twelve Tide

“On the 12th day of Christmas

My true love sent to me

12 drummers drumming

Eleven pipers piping

Ten lords a-leaping

Nine ladies dancing

Eight maids a-milking

Seven swans a-swimming

Six geese a-laying

Five golden rings (five golden rings)

Four calling birds

Three French hens

Two turtle-doves

And a partridge in a pear tree

And a partridge in a pear tree”

A Pratidge In A Pear Tree

Origins of the Quote

This pleasant Christmas song has its origins in the 1700s. Though it was published only by 1780. There is a debate on the meaning and significance of the twelve gifts. As is prevalent in the oral tradition, dialectical differences can lead to the alteration of the meanings. Over the decades and centuries – interpretations have changed. However, there exists a general meaning that is commonly accepted.  

The exact origins and the meaning of the song are mysterious. Many historians believe that the Christmas carol started out as a “memory-and-forfeit” game in 1800s England. A British schoolyard game that was extremely popular. On your turn, you repeat all the previously sung lyrics and add the next one. If you can’t remember a verse, you owe your opponent a “forfeit,” which was usually a kiss or piece of candy.

The best-known English version was first printed in Mirth without Mischief, a children’s book published in London around 1780. The work exists, beautifully illustrated with woodcuts.

The Meaning Behind the Words

Acceptably, the twelve days over which the song takes place is a reference to Christianity. What may come as a surprise to many  -“The 12 Days of Christmas” historically does not reference the days leading up to Christmas, but rather the 12 days following it. It is the ‘Twelve tide’ in Christian reference.

This period commences with the birth of Christ on December 25th, Christmas Day, and ends with the coming of the three wise men on January 6th. So this day is known as the Epiphany or Three Kings Day. The weeks before Christmas are known as Advent, ending on December 24 — hence, the advent calendars.

So What does it Mean?

The Partridge in the Pear Tree stands for Jesus Christ, a symbol of purity and sacrifice; the partridge is known to play dead for the hunters to take the attention away from her babies. The selfless love and sacrifice is what place her in the lovely Christmas song.

The 2 Turtle Doves signify The Old and New Testaments. Turtle doves are known for their immense loyalty and naturally are respected for this quality. The 3 French hens are Faith, Hope, and Charity, the theological virtues, also representative of foreigners. The 4 Calling Birds are the four gospels or the four evangelists. The 5 Golden Rings are the first five books of the Old Testament; or alternatively the 5 golden ringed pheasants.

The end portion continues in the same vein but moves to magical spheres referring to creation and Divinity.

The 6 Geese refer to A-laying are the six days of creation. The 7 Swans A-swimming are the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments. The 8 Maids A-milking are the eight beatitudes. The 9 Ladies Dancing are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit. The 10 Lords A-leaping are the ten commandments. The 11 Pipers Piping are the eleven faithful apostles and the 12 Drummers Drumming are the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed.

Some Final Thoughts

There may be a debate on the meaning and significance – but nothing takes away from the popularity of the rhyme. It still remains a rhyme that people love listening to and counting and imagining the images that come up. Ther is an old world charm in the carol. By virtue of it being a memory game in a song, it is inclusive of its audience. There is a circularity in the verse – a sense of things coming around.

Check out our Quote of the Day archive where we bring you quotes hand picked by me, Divvya Nirula. Sharing the stories, people, moments behind the inspiration and thought provoking words.