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What is the carol ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ about?

And why are there so many birds in the song?

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Christmas lights at the Church of Jesus Christ’s Conference Center in Salt Lake City are pictured on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022.

Christmas lights at the Church of Jesus Christ’s Conference Center in Salt Lake City are pictured on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The song “Twelve Days of Christmas” is ubiquitous around Christmastime.

But did it actually happen? And how was it first started?

What are the 12 days of Christmas?

In Christian theology, the 12 days of Christmas is the span of time between Jesus Christ’s birth and the visit from the three wise men. The days start on Dec. 26 and end on Jan. 6.

Christians started celebrating that time period with feasts, Christmas activities and days to honor saints, per Christianity.com.

How did the song ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ start?

The first known publication of the carol was in the English children’s book “Mirth Without Mischief,” published in 1780.

Historians speculate that “the Christmas carol started out as a ‘memory-and-forfeit’ game in 1800s England,” per Good Housekeeping.

A memory-and-forfeit game is where one child starts the song, then each child builds upon the song and must repeat the past lyrics.

The popular version of the song we know was composed by Frederic Austin in 1909.

Why are there so many birds in the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ carol?

Like Andy Bernard aptly points out when he tries to gift his office crush the gifts from the carol on “The Office,” “Is it my fault the first eight days is basically 30 birds?”

Some historians believe that the animals mentioned in the carol were animals Europeans consumed for celebration at the time, The Atlantic reported.

Historians also theorize that “during a time when Christians were punished for worshiping openly,” the song served as a means to honor Jesus Christ and their religion with symbolism, according to Metro UK.

Here’s what each day represents, per Catholic News Agency:

  1. The partridge in a pear tree — Jesus Christ.
  2. Two turtle doves — Old and New Testaments.
  3. Three French hens — faith, hope and love.
  4. Four calling birds — the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
  5. Five golden rings — the first five books of the Old Testament.
  6. Six geese a-laying — the six days of the creation.
  7. Seven swans a-swimming — gifts of the Holy Spirit.
  8. Eight maids a-milking — the beatitudes.
  9. Nine ladies dancing — the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit.
  10. Ten lords a-leaping — Ten Commandments.
  11. Eleven pipers piping — the 11 faithful disciples.
  12. Twelve drummers drumming — 12 points of belief in the Apostles’ Creed.