The twelfth day of Christmas

And so we come to the twelfth day of Christmas, 5 January—the day that ends with Twelfth Night, the Eve before Epiphany. And what a gift-giving bonanza it has been! Birds of various kinds, jewellery, milkmaids, dancing ladies, leaping lords, and a bunch of pipers, have been marshalled and then gifted by “my true live” to a deserving recipient. And celebrated in song! It has been quite an extravaganza.

We sing about this every year in “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. That popular song itemises the giving of gifts over those twelve days, mounting cumulatively day by day. The total number of gifts given is quite amazing—it actually totals 364! Each day’s gift is given, not only on that day, but on each of the subsequent days.

To calculate the total number of gifts, we need to multiply each gift by the number of times it recurs in a full round of the song. If we do this, we will soon realise that the gifts’ recipient would have to rent a storage unit and gain access to a lake, to contain the bounty, including 12 partridges (one each day for 12 days), 22 turtledoves (2each day for 11 days), 30 French hens (3 each day for 10 days), 36 colly birds, 40 gold rings, 42 laying geese, 42 swimming swans, 40 milking maids, 36 dancing ladies, 30 leaping lords, 22 pipers piping, and 12 drummers drumming.

And just think, how much all of this would cost! In fact, the cost each year has been calculated by the Christmas Price Index, published by the US bank PNC Wealth Management (only in America would a bank be called a “wealth management” company 😳). See

The Christmas Price Index chose the items in this popular Christmas carol as its market basket, calculating their cost by using local sources of information—purchasing the pear tree from a local Philadelphia nursery, assessing the costs of the partridge, turtle dove, and French hen prices as determined by the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.

The price for the gold rings was guided initially by Gordon Jewelers (subsequently taken over by the Zale Corporation), and an assumption was made that the maids were unskilled laborers earning the federal minimum wage. The ten “lords a-leaping” are valued by using the cost of hiring male ballet dancers instead of real lords, since “lordships are a title of nobility not recognised in the United States”!

In 2012, the “true love” would have to spend $107,300 to buy all 364 presents. PNC Wealth Management has calculated the cost of the gifts every year since 1984–in that year, the same gift assortment would have cost $61,300. Those determinedly mobile swans were the most expensive item, at $1,000 each in 2012.

By 2019, the total cost would have been $38,993.59, but the next year, the cost dipped, because of the pandemic and associated restrictions. In 2020, the index did not include nine Ladies Dancing, ten Lords-A-Leaping, eleven Pipers Piping, or twelve Drummers Drumming due to COVID-19 restrictions on live performances. The total cost was $16,168.14. But in 2021, with performances in the USA once again possible, it rose to $41,205.50, and then to $45,523.27 in 2022.

So: as well as being a noisy enterprise (all those birds squawking, pipers piping, and drummers drumming) requiring large storage facilities, it’s an expensive business for the “true love” to keep this up, each and every year!

See also

Saint Basil: scholar and gift-giver

Today (1 January) is the feast day of Saint Basil the Great in the Eastern churches. Basil wrote many theological works and is remembered (along with the two Gregorys, of Nyssa and Nazianzus—pictured below) as one of the Cappadocian Fathers, who played an influential role in the development of patristic thinking about the triune God.

It is said that Basil was tall, thin, partly bald, with a long beard. (He is the one on the left in the icon above.) He ate no more than was absolutely necessary for his survival; he never ate meat. It is said that he had only one worn undergarment and one overgarment.

Basil said that prayer was the seasoning for our daily work, as we season food with salt; that sacred and holy songs can only inspire us and give us joy and not grief. His philosophy fits well into the Christmas Season, when we season our lives with carols!

At the age of 28, Basil “left the world” and became a monk; at 35 a priest, then at 41, the Bishop of Caesarea. It is said that Basil, being born into a wealthy family, gave away all his possessions to the poor, the underprivileged, those in need, and children.

For Greeks and others in the Orthodox tradition, St Basil is the saint associated with Santa Claus. In Greek tradition, he brings gifts to children every January 1 (St Basil’s Day). It is traditional on St Basil’s Day to serve vasilopita, a rich bread baked with a coin inside.

It is also customary on his feast day to visit the homes of friends and relatives, to sing carols for the New Year, and to set an extra place at the table for Basil.

The celebration of St Basil on 1 January marks the day of his death. In the Western Church, because 1 January commemorates the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, Basil shares his saintly commemoration on the next day, 2 January, with Gregory of Nazianzus.

St Basil’s Hymn is one of many traditional Greek carols (often referred to as calanda) that are still sung by children on St Basil’s feast day (New Year’s Day). In the tradition still practiced to some extent in modern times, Greek children roam the neighborhoods from house-to-house on St Basil’s Day, playing instruments and singing songs, bidding New Year’s tidings to everyone, and receiving gifts of sweets and pastries from householders.

Here is the hymn (in a quirky and rather stilted translation):

It’s the beginning of the month
beginning of the year
High incense tree
Beginning of my good year
Church with the Holy Seat
It’s the beginning of our Christ
Saint and spiritual
He got out to walk on earth
And to welcome us
St. Basil is coming from Caesarea
And doesn’t want to deal with us
May you long live, my lady
He holds an icon and a piece of paper
With the picture of Christ our Saviour
A piece of paper and a quill
Please look at me, the young man

The depth of God’s presence in our midst

Today (in the Eastern Church) is designated as the Feast of the Holy Innocents. (It was celebrated yesterday in the Western Church.) This festival day commemorates the story of “the Slaughter of the Innocents”, reportedly ordered by King Herod, and recorded in the opening chapters of Matthew’s Gospel (and nowhere else). It is a tragic story, a myth which is filled with pathos, and it resonates with events in the world we live in today. It is a story with great power (as are all myths).

But this story is strikingly absent from the usual array of carols that are sung at this time of the year. Sugar-coated reminiscences of the cute li’l baby Jesus (“holy infant so tender and mild”, “the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head”, “but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”, “gentle and lowly lived below”) take us well away from the murderous acts of the tyrannical ruler.

Most of the traditional carols really want us to focus on Jesus the exalted Lord, resplendent in glory, coming to earth from heaven, so they move us quickly away from the vulnerable infant, and especially from the grim political and social realities of the time.

Some of the traditional carols take us to the edge of the story of violence and repression, and then leave it unspoken, or rather, unsung. “Unto us a boy is born” refers to the fury unleashed by Herod in slaughtering the baby boys, but fails then to go on and narrate the flight undertaken by Joseph, Mary and Jesus. In “The first Nowell”, the three wise men see the star in verse 4 and come to find Jesus in verse 5, but nothing further is told of the ensuing events of Herod—slaughter—flight into Egypt.

A similar dynamic happens in verse 4 of “O come, all you faithful”, verse 3 of “Angels, from the realms of glory”, verse 3 of “Silent night, holy night”, and in verse 3 of the rollicking calypso carol, “The Virgin Mary had a baby boy”. “Brightest and best of the stars of the morning” spends one verse describing the cradle scene and two verses reflecting on the gifts brought to the infant Jesus, but nothing more as to how the visitors had come to him via Herod.

“As with gladness, men of old” devotes three verses to the story of the men of old seeing the star and bringing their gifts, but then dovetails into a pietistic plea to Jesus to “keep us in the narrow way”. No mention of the scenes of slaughter of the innocent infants and the fearful flight of refugees in these carols.

The star and the visitors from the east get prime billing; the murdered children and the hastily-departing family of Jesus, seeking the safety of refuge in a foreign country, are passed over very quickly.

Why is this state of affairs so? The lack of reference to the murderous acts of Herod and the fearful flight of the family of Jesus indicates that our Christmas carols sanitise and sanctify this foundational story, gilding the lily, reshaping our perspective on the story. They completely omit any references to a part of the story that has gained such traction, and that occupies such attention, in the minds of carefully critical contemporary Christians. Children continue to be sacrificed today, in the course of jingoistic warfare waged for ideological reasons. The tragedy continues today …

A number of contemporary hymn writers have turned their attention to this story. Shirley Erena Murray is right on the money when she highlights the violence and fear at the heart of the story, claims that the infant in the story has “come to plead war’s counter-case”, and articulates the hope that “goodness will outclass the gun, evil has no tooth that can kill the truth.”

Summer sun or winter skies, Christmas comes —

shepherds, angels, lullabies, words recorded by the wise:

read it in the book — take another look . . . .

Shadows track the hawk in flight; Christmas now —

children born in fire and fight, silent night a violent night,

hawks are in control of a nation’s soul.

There where terror plies its trade; Christmas now —

children learn to be afraid, minefields of distrust are laid,

evil is in force on a winning course.

Child of peace, God’s human face, Christmas now —

come to plead war’s counter-case, bring the dove a nesting place,

though her wings are torn, though her blood is drawn.

Winter skies or summer sun, Christmas comes —

still the threads of hope are spun, goodness will outclass the gun,

evil has no tooth that can kill the truth.

That is why the ancient story retold at Christmas resonates so strongly with our situation today. Not because “it really happened, exactly like this”, but because it takes us to the centre of our humanity and reveals the depth of God’s presence in our midst. We ought to sing more about it!

In the resources for Daily Prayer with the Northumbrian Community, that Elizabeth and I currently use, there is this wonderful prayer for this day:

Where is the sound of hope, the cry of the child that wakes?
 The dull, aching, continued breathing of the mother
 becomes a wail of grief, a weeping for the children who are no more.
 The silent landscape shudders.
 God of mercy, light in darkness, hold gently to Your heart
 the tiny ones we cradle in our prayer whose life was over before it had begun. Amen.


See also 


On the fifth day of Christmas: five gold rings

So today we come to the five gold rings in the twelve days of Christmas — you know, the place in the song where everyone turns into bathroom baritones (or the female equivalent), holding forth with the long notes in the “five go-old riiiiiiiiiiiiings” line!

And here we meet head-on the pietistic rhetoric about the song having hidden meanings—the five gold rings stand for the five Books of Moses, just as the two turtledoves signify the two testaments of the Bible, the three colly-birds point to the three persons of the Trinity, the ten lords a-leaping represent the Ten Commandments, and the twelve drummers drumming symbolise the twelve points of The Apostles’ Creed. Pietistic tosh, clearly debunked by!

See further at

But beware: another danger lurks here! Recently, no less a venerable and reliable source than the UK Mirror (!!) has quoted a Canadian astrophysicist, Dr Anna Hughes, who tweeted that “’five gooolden riings’ is not in fact referring to 5 literal golden rings, but to five ring-necked pheasants, aka more birds”. Perhaps she felt that commenting on popular christmassy songs would bring her more fame and renown than her PhD is astrophysics and her research in quantum computing? (Thanks to my friend James Ellis for bringing this *learned* article to my attention 😁)

Sadly for the Mirror, and Dr Hughes, this theory is not new. In a 1951 article, Ben Shahn had suggested that “the five golden rings refer to the ringed pheasant”. A decade later (1962) William and Ceil Baring-Gould published a book in which they reiterate this idea, which implies that the gifts for first seven days are all birds. The Mirror, and Dr Hughes, are rather late to the party!!

According to Dr Wikipedia, “Others suggest the gold rings refer to “five goldspinks”—a goldspink being an old name for a goldfinch; or even canaries. In his blog entitled “The Illustrated Etymologicon”, journalist and author Mark Forsyth suggests “the rings could be ring-bills, ring-birds, ring-blackbirds, ring-buntings, ring-dotterels, ring-pigeons, ring-plovers, ring-sparrows or ring-thrushes. There’s a veritable aviary of birds that could be called rings and that, given the feathered context, is what the song is about.” So why pheasants?


However, the original 1780 publication of the song included an illustration that clearly depicts the “five gold rings” as being jewellery.

Five Gold Rings from “The Twelve Days of Christmas sung at King Pepin’s Ball” in Mirth without Mischief (London: Printed by J. Davenport, George’s Court,
for C. Sheppard, No. 8, Aylesbury Street, Clerkenwell [ca. 1780 or 1800?])

Further light is shed on the gold rings by Dr Pamela Patton, an art historian who has specialised in medieval Spanish art and currently teaches at Princeton University. Dr Patton writes, “the familiar version of the carol that emerged in 1909, when Frederic Austin published his arrangement. And the “five gold rings” part that’s so fun to belt out? It was Austin who composed those two famous bars and added them to his arrangement of the traditional melody, which was copyrighted by the publisher!”

On a roll, she continues, “It was also Austin who added the word “On” to the beginning of each verse. Interestingly, for the twelfth day, Austin doubled down on the melisma, so the final verse calls for the word “gold” to be sung with a flourish of four notes rather than the two usually sung today.”

The publication she refers to is Frederic Austin, arr., The Twelve Days of Christmas (Traditional Song) (London: Novello, 1909). She records all of this on her blog site, “The Index of Medieval Art”. (The arrangement by Austin is not medieval, and the song itself falls just beyond her area of expertise, having first been published in the 18th century, but her blog post contains a fine exposition about a number of gold rings from antiquity in various museum collections.)

So the combination of the artwork and the musical arrangement would point to the five go-old rings being just that—not a gift of yet more birds, but rather an expensive jewellery gift from the true love in the song!

The counter-cultural, alternative-narrative impact of the person of Jesus

Today (in the Western Church) is designated as the Feast of the Holy Innocents. (It is celebrated tomorrow in the Eastern Church.) This festival day commemorates a tradition known as “the slaughter of the Innocents”, reportedly ordered by King Herod.

Continue reading “The counter-cultural, alternative-narrative impact of the person of Jesus”

Ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing

Today is the second day in the season of Christmas, which technically runs from 25 December to 5 January. This day brings together an unlikely combination of characters, worth pondering.

Continue reading “Ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing”

The Twelve Days of Christmas: some explanatory explorations

So, it is the night of Christmas Day, and it feels like it is all over—done and dusted, finished, put to bed. Hold it—not so fast!! This is only just the start. Christmas Day is just the first of twelve days of the Christmas season. You might have heard about those twelve days in the song, The Twelve Days of Christmas. This is an English Christmas Carol which is often sung in the lead up to Christmas. It actually belongs to the Christmas season—that is, the days on and after Christmas Day.

Now, some have claimed that this song had a pietistic purpose: a kind of sung catechism about the central features of the Christian Faith, put into code by Roman Catholics in England when their faith was outlawed. (One is Jesus, two symbolises the two testaments, three indicates faith, hope and love, four refers to the Gospels, five to the Books of Moses, ten to the Ten Commandments, twelve to the apostles, and so on …)

Nice theory, but there is no evidence at all that this was the case … and the origins of the theory go back no further than a speculation by a Canadian hymn writer in an article published in 1979. (And agrees; you can read the detailed rebuttal at

The Twelve Days of the #twelvedaysofchristmas technically refer to the days from Christmas Day, the first day of Christmas, through to Twelfth Night. So the song should be sung from Christmas Day onwards. And the gifts that are given each day accumulate until the twelfth night, the evening before Epiphany, when gifts were given to Jesus by the Magi visiting from the east.

Professor Bruce Forbes writes that “In 567 the Council of Tours proclaimed that the entire period between Christmas and Epiphany should be considered part of the celebration, creating what became known as the twelve days of Christmas, or what the English, called Christmastide. On the last of the twelve days, called Twelfth Night, various cultures developed a wide range of additional special festivities. The variation extends even to the issue of how to count the days.” (Christmas: A Candid History, 2008; see p. 27).

Forbes also notes that there are divergent chronologies at work in different parts of the church: “If Christmas Day is the first of the twelve days, then Twelfth Night would be on January 5, the eve of Epiphany. If December 26, the day after Christmas, is the first day, then Twelfth Night falls on January 6, the evening of Epiphany itself.”

There’s a suggestion that The Twelve Days of Christmas song was originally sung in French . . . or, at least, that the line for the First Day originally included both French and English terms for the bird; thus, “partridge” (in English, and then in French, “perdrix” (pronounced per-dree) . . . which makes no sense, really; but this is a Christmas Carol, and such songs don’t really have to make sense, do they?

On the Second Day, two turtledoves are to be given. But for what purpose? Since this song relates to Christmas, can we assume that there is some religious or spiritual significance with this gift??

Turtle doves could be offered as a sin-offering (Lev 5:7). Is this why they were given? Or perhaps, as the alternate offering for a poor woman, seeking purification after giving birth (Lev 12:8)? This at least links in to the Christmas story (at Luke 2:24), which is what the song is supposed to be about! But it does seem like a long shot …

So, what about as a guilt-offering when cleansing a leper (Lev 14:22)? Or maybe for a Nazirite who has touched a corpse (Num 6:9)? Or as a means of cleansing after sexual discharge (Lev 15:14)? Or maybe the text is multivalent, and we are supposed to bring all of these allusions to mind. Because we know our Bible so well. And we know this is meant to be symbolic. Eh?

Next, on Day Three, the gift to be given is three French hens. Some suggest they are Faith, Hope and Charity, the key Theological Virtues. But only three? There are actually four types of French Hens (Faverolles, La Fleche, Crevecoeurs and Marans). So do we know which one of the four missed out on its moment of glory in this Christmas carol? It’s a worry.

On Day Four, four birds form the gift. Ah, but what type of birds? Calling birds? So you might think. But older versions of the song identify them as Colly Birds. Which are … …??? A colly bird is a black bird. A coal mine is called a colliery, so ‘colly’ or ‘collie’ is a derivation of this and means black like coal. So, no more whitewashing, let’s sing “four black birds”, and be clear about it, eh?

And … while we are at it … Day Five: Five Golden Rings? But they are surrounded by flocks of birds (swans, geese, colly birds, hens de la France, turtle doves, and a partridge). Rings are out of place. So, it is believed that this verse originally referred not to jewellery but to ring-necked birds such as the ring-necked pheasant. So, let’s now sing: “five ring-necked birds”! Context is everything!

The sixth of the #twelvedaysofchristmas is the midpoint of the 12 days, when we can look back on the story of Christmas (the birth and the shepherds), and forward to the story of Epiphany (the visit of the Magi). The gift for the Sixth Day focusses on new life: six geese a-laying.

It is said that, while chickens lay eggs regularly (usually each day ), geese only lay 30-50 eggs a year. This means they are a less productive bird to keep. It takes longer to increase the size of the flock for meat production. And their eggs are very high in cholesterol. Was this a wise gift? (Of course, you may well score the goose that lays the golden egg.)

On Day Seven, the gift is seven swans a-swimming. Well, yes; that’s what swans do. But who in their right might give this as a gift? Where would they all be put so that they could keep swimming? In a huge bathtub? This is quite unrealistic. Anyway, I guess it proves that the carol was not written by a football-mad fanatic. (They would have had swans kicking goals.)

On Day Eight, we are exhorted to give eight maids a-milking. In older English, to “go a-milking” could mean to ask a woman for her hand in marriage; OR to ask a woman to go “for a roll in the hay”, as it were. Is this Christmas carol concealing a reference to illicit sexual encounters? And does that make it more interesting than just getting some milk in order to make some cheese?

Next: Day Nine. Nine ladies dancing. Liturgical dances, I presume? In explore the significance of these ladies, I am somewhat stumped. Any clues, anyone?

Meanwhile, I am starting to compile my list of ‘not relevant in Australia’ secular Christmas carols. Because here, downunder, we are in the midst of summer—not winter, as all the upover northern hemisphere Christmas songs assume. So, not relevant to downunder would include: Anything with snow, for a start. And bells. And holly. And fir trees. And … well, the possibilities are endless.

On Day Ten, the gift is to be ten Lords a-leaping. Alliteration, indeed; but why leaping? Perhaps there is a textual transmission problem here. Maybe it should be: Lords a-leasing? (what to do with their huge old castles and manors)? Or Lords a-sleeping? (in the upper chamber of the British parliament)? Or perhaps Lords a-weeping? (at the decline of their much- loved aristocratic powers). Who knows?

Which brings us to the eleventh day of (the season of) Christmas. On Day Eleven we meet eleven pipers piping. So perhaps this comes from a Scottish variant (like day one comes from the French version). Perhaps the Scots packed their song full of food? In this, the gifts would include twelve alka seltsers, eleven Blue Lagoons, ten creme de menthe, nine vodka and limes, eight nips of whisky, seven rum and cokes, six Carlsberg specials…you get the picture? (Yes, I know, this is becoming quite speculative!!)

Or — does the Scottish reference (bagpipes) mean that I should refer to the crackpot theory that this whole carol was a coded reference to the right of Bonny Prince Charlie to regain the British throne? Yegods … …

But I do note that, in other versions, there are eleven ladies spinning, eleven ladies dancing, eleven lads a-louping, eleven bulls a-beating, and eleven badgers baiting!! Make of them, what you will.

And then, we come to the ultimate (last) of the #twelvedaysofchristmas. Day Twelve. Twelve drummers drumming.

Since the gifts are cumulative, and repeated on each day, on Day Twelve we actually have drummers drumming, along with piping pipers, leaping lords, bleating cows, tapping toes, shuffling shoes, a horde of aviary escapees, and the whole schemozzle. 78 gifts in all (count them) just on this last, twelfth, day. Presumably the others gifts from earlier days are still there. That’s one heck of a menagerie!! It’s all too loud, I think — and the incessant fights amongst all those squawking birds! Oh dear; time for a doze, instead.

The evening of Day Twelve is thus Twelfth Night. The day after is Epiphany, a day to celebrate the coming of the magi to the infant Jesus. Time, indeed, to rest—when you get there. But, for the moment, there’s some geese to be sourced. And some drummers. And milkmaids … and Lords (Lords??) … and ………….


See also