What are the 12 days of Christmas? Lyrics explained, full list of gifts, and when the 12 days of Christmas start

The Twelve Days of Christmas celebrate the Nativity of Jesus and, in most Western traditions, Christmas Day is considered the First Day of Christmas.
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Around this time of year, you’ll begin to hear various festive songs, ranging from traditional hymns to more modern pop songs.

One festive staple is 12 Days of Christmas, a song for the Christmas period that counts down festive items in numerically descending order.

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But while that song – and particularly its five gold rings exclamation – is a common feature at merry Christmas sing-alongs, the true meaning of the phrase is somewhat different.

(Photo: Shutterstock)(Photo: Shutterstock)
(Photo: Shutterstock)

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What are the Twelve Days of Christmas?

The Twelve Days of Christmas – known also as ‘Twelvetide’ sometimes – celebrates the Nativity of Jesus, and in most Western traditions, Christmas Day is considered the First Day of Christmas.

(Photo: Shutterstock)(Photo: Shutterstock)
(Photo: Shutterstock)

The Twelve Days run from December 25th up to and including January 5th.

Traditionally, the Twelve Days is a period of continuous feasting and merrymaking, which culminated on ‘Twelfth Night’, the traditional end of the Christmas season made famous by Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

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January 5th is considered the latest date that one should leave their Christmas decorations on display, and not taking them down on this day is thought to be bad luck.

The song ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ originates much earlier than the traditions of the time itself, which have existed for many hundreds of years.

The song was first published in England around 1780, although its origins are actually French.

It was first published in a book for children called ‘Mirth without Mischief’, and was intended as a memory and forfeit game to be played on Twelfth Night.

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Players who made an error had to offer either a kiss or confection to another player.

It was first made public without music, and the familiar tune we sing now wouldn’t come along until 1909, when composer Frederic Austi set the words to his arrangement of a traditional folk melody, and introduced the famous phrase "five gold rings".

How many birds are in the 12 Days of Christmas?

The commonly accepted lyrics are as follows:

‘On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me...A partridge in a pear tree.’

Subsequent verses follow the same pattern, each one adding a new gift and repeating the earlier gifts, so that each verse gets longer and longer.

Here are the other gifts that are added to the song:

- Two turtle doves

- Three french hens

- Four calling birds

- Five gold rings

- Six geese a-laying

- Seven swans a-swimming

- Eight maids a-milking

- Nine ladies dancing

- Ten lords a-leaping

- Eleven pipers piping

- Twelve drummers drumming

This gives a grand total of 23 birds, and 78 gifts overall.

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The lyrics have had a number of variations over the centuries, and in northern counties of England, the song was often known as the ‘Ten Days of Christmas’, with a reduced number of gifts, and many of them being replaced with alliterative tongue-twisters.