December 29, 2023

#08-371: The Twelve Days of Christmas


Note: Some people think that the giver in this song gave only one partridge in a pair tree. But it was twelve!

Get Ready: Do you know a formula for adding tetrahedral numbers? Look at this.

Have you ever heard the song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas," and wondered, "What? Isn't Christmas just one day?"

Well, some Christian denominations teach that Christmas rightly begins on December 25th--the "first day of Christmas"--and ends on January 5th, the day before the "Feast of the Epiphany." Add them up and you get 12 days.

Why January 5th? Some churches say that Epiphany begins a new season, celebrating when the baby Jesus was revealed to the outside world upon the visit of the "Wise Men" (sometimes erroneously called the "Three Kings"). That season goes on until Lent, which prepares for Easter. (Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas, preparing for that day.)

So what about those twelve days? It's what is called a "cumulative song," where each verse adds to the previous. The first is easy:

"On the first day of Christmas [Dec. 25] my true love gave to me
a partridge in a pear tree."

This is the first of many birds mentioned.


"On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree."

The third day adds "three French hens" to the previous, and so on.

Now here's something interesting: each day, the gifts of the previous days are repeated. So by Day Three, the singer has three partridges in three pear trees, four turtle doves, and three French hens. Get it? One bird the first day, three the second, six the third, and so on.

Day Four brings "four calling birds," Day Six "six geese a-laying," and Day Seven "seven swans a-swimming." How many birds so far? By my count, 69! I have left out the "five gold rings" given on Days Five, Six, and Seven (now 15!) because I am only counting birds (though some people say the "rings" are actually ring-necked pheasants, to be consistent with the other birds mentioned).

From Day Eight to Day Twelve, all the gifts are people (!): eight maids a-milking, nine ladies dancing, ten lords a-leaping, eleven pipers piping, and twelve drummers drumming.

Wow! Where did the singer put 184 birds, 40 rings, and 140 people? That's 364 gifts, just one less than the number of days in a year. Oh, did I mention the 12 pear trees?

Anyway, the song is great fun to sing. Find a copy and try to sing along with it!


Practice: Match the term to its definition:

Term Definition
  1. consistent
  2. cumulative
  3. erroneously
  4. feast
  5. leaping
  6. maids
  7. pipers
  8. revealed
  9. rightly
  10. verse
  1. in this case, a holy day
  2. a section of a song
  3. adding up together
  4. properly
  5. jumping around
  6. young women
  7. shown; exposed
  8. people who play a certain type of wind instrument
  9. incorrectly
  10. done the same way each time

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for December 29, 2023

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. j; 2. c; 3. i; 4. a; 5. e; 6. f; 7. h; 8. g; 9. d; 10. b