A Song That’s Versed in Love


If you’ve ever wondered why someone would give their true love a partridge in a pear tree for Christmas, you’re not alone.

Edward Phinney knows. It all has to do with fertility.

Sometime during the holiday season, you’re bound to hear the familiar strains of the song featuring a true love who gave the following to his object of desire:

12 drummers drumming


11 pipers piping

10 lords a-leaping

nine ladies dancing

eight maids a-milking

seven swans a-swimming

six geese a-laying


five golden rings

four calling birds

three French hens

two turtle doves

and a partridge in a pear tree.

The title, of course, is “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Phinney, a professor of classics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has researched the origin of the song and the meaning behind all those gifts in all those lyrics. He has turned up some interesting interpretations.

“ ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ was a secular ballad that was first published in 1868 in a book of Christmas songs in England, but it’s probably been around a lot longer than that,” he said.

“It’s primarily a love song. It’s a game song, too. The point is to remember every item and not get twisted up.”

The elements of the song reveal its secular origins. “If you think of all the things being presented, you realize they’re all gifts from a lover to a woman,” Phinney said.

“Some of them are rather impossible to give, like eight maids a-milking and nine ladies dancing. All those ladies and dancing and pipers and drums imply this is a wedding.

“In this case, it looks like a young man trying to impress his intended by wooing her with many gifts. They’re all things that would be useful at a wedding.”

Somewhere down the line, said Phinney, it got turned into a Christmas song, or, more properly, a Twelfthsnight song.

The 12 days of Christmas are the 12 days following Dec. 25, ending with the Feast of the Epiphany. The last of those 12 days--known as Twelfthsnight in England--was a time when people traditionally gave gifts.

Tradition also holds that Jan. 6 was the day the Three Kings arrived to pay homage to the newborn Christ.

But all this still doesn’t explain the partridge or the pear tree.

“The partridge in a pear tree alludes to fertility,” said Phinney. “The pear is equivalent to the the heart and the partridge is a famous aphrodisiac.”

In fact, all the birds are symbols of fertility, and seven of the song’s 12 verses refer to birds, he said.

As a counting song, “It’s also full of tongue-twisters,” said Phinney. Try saying “seven swans a-swimming” several times in succession.

As such, the original tune was probably used as a “forfeit” song, during which two sides would sing verses in turn. If one side forgot a verse or blew a line, they would have to forfeit a prize. In many cases, it was a kiss.

“The whole song seems to me to point to a festival or joy and love more appropriate to a secular holiday like Valentine’s Day or May Day than a religious holiday,” Phinney said.