Posts Tagged ‘traditions’


The Twelve Days of Christmas” is an English Christmas carol that enumerates in the manner of a cumulative song a series of increasingly grand gifts given on each of the twelve days of Christmas (the twelve days after Christmas). The song, published in England in 1780 without music as a chant or rhyme, is thought to be French in origin. The standard tune now associated with it is derived from a 1909 arrangement of a traditional folk melody by English composer Frederic Austin, who first introduced the now familiar prolongation of the verse “five gold rings”.

Anonymous broadside, Angus, Newcastle, 1774–1825

 “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a cumulative song, meaning that each verse is built on top of the previous verses. There are twelve verses, each describing a gift given by “my true love” on one of the twelve days of Christmas. There are many variations in the lyrics. The lyrics given here are from Austin’s 1909 publication that first established the current form of the carol. The first three verses run, in full, as follows:

On the First day of Christmas my true love sent to me
a Partridge in a Pear Tree.

On the Second day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Two Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.

On the Third day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Three French Hens,
Two Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.

Subsequent verses follow the same pattern, each adding one new gift and repeating all the earlier gifts, so that each verse is one line longer than its predecessor, as in:

4 Calling Birds
5 Gold Rings
6 Geese a-Laying
7 Swans a-Swimming
8 Maids a-Milking
9 Ladies Dancing (or Prancing)
10 Lords a-Leaping
11 Pipers Piping
12 Drummers Drumming

Variations of the lyrics

“Mirth without Mischief” (1780)

The earliest known version of the lyrics was published under the title “The Twelve Days of Christmas sung at King Pepin’s Ball”, as part of a 1780 children’s book, Mirth without Mischief. Subsequent versions have shown considerable variation:
  • In the earliest versions, the word “On” is not present at the beginning of each verse—for example, the first verse begins simply “The first day of Christmas”. “On” was added in Austin’s 1909 version, and became very popular thereafter.
  • In the early versions “my true love sent” me the gifts. However, a 20th-century variant has “my true love gave to me”; this wording has become particularly common in North America.
  • The 1780 version has “four colly birds” – “colly” being a regional English expression for “black”.

    This wording must have been opaque to many even in the 19th century: “canary birds”, “colour’d birds”, “curley birds”, and “corley birds” are all found in its place. Frederic Austin’s 1909 version, which introduced the now-standard melody, also altered the fourth day’s gift to four “calling” birds, and this variant has become the most popular, although “colly” is still found. (Especially in our household.)

  • The “five gold rings” may become “five golden rings”, especially in North America. In the standard melody, this change enables singers to fit one syllable per musical note.
  • The gifts associated with the final four days are often reordered. For example, the pipers may be on the ninth day rather than the eleventh.


In Scotland, early in the 19th century, the recitation began: “The king sent his lady on the first Yule day, | A popingo-aye [parrot]; | Wha learns my carol and carries it away?” The succeeding gifts were two partridges, three plovers, a goose that was grey, three starlings, three goldspinks, a bull that was brown, three ducks a-merry laying, three swans a-merry swimming, an Arabian baboon, three hinds a-merry hunting, three maids a-merry dancing, three stalks o’ merry corn.

Faroe Islands

One of the two “Twelve Days of Christmas” Faroe stamps

In the Faroe Islands, there is a comparable counting Christmas song. The gifts include: one feather, two geese, three sides of meat, four sheep, five cows, six oxen, seven dishes, eight ponies, nine banners, ten barrels, eleven goats, twelve men, thirteen hides, fourteen rounds of cheese and fifteen deer. These were illustrated in 1994 by local cartoonist Óli Petersen (born 1936) on a series of two stamps issued by the Faroese Philatelic Office.


The French folk song “La Perdriole” (“The Partridge”) is a cumulative song with the same kind of lyrics and a similar (but slightly different) melody. One variant iterates over the 12 months of the year (“Le premier mois d’l’année”, etc…). Another version may be found in the Rondes et chansons de France, Vol. 10. It iterates over the first 12 days of May (“Au premier jour de Mai”, etc…)

Origins and meaning

The exact origins and the meaning of the song are unknown, but it is highly probable that it originated from a children’s memory and forfeit game.

The twelve days in the song are the twelve days starting with Christmas Day, or in some traditions, the day after Christmas (December 26) (Boxing Day or St. Stephen’s Day, as being the feast day of St. Stephen Protomartyr), to the day before Epiphany, or the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6, or the Twelfth Day). Twelfth Night is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the evening of the fifth of January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of the Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking.”

(Which is why we are supposed to take our Christmas decorations down on the 6th of Jan, even though in our household we never do, we like the pretty lights too much!)

The best known English version was first printed in English in 1780 in a little book intended for children, Mirth without Mischief, as a Twelfth Night “memories-and-forfeits” game, in which a leader recited a verse, each of the players repeated the verse, the leader added another verse, and so on until one of the players made a mistake, with the player who erred having to pay a penalty, such as offering up a kiss or a sweet. One hundred years later, Lady Gomme, a collector of folktales and rhymes, described how it used to be played every Twelfth Day night before eating mince pies and twelfth cake (also known as “King’s cake).

Writing around 1846, Edward Rimbault stated that “[e]ach child in succession repeats the gifts of the day, and forfeits for each mistake.”

Salmon, writing from Newcastle, claimed in 1855 that the song “[had] been, up to within twenty years, extremely popular as a schoolboy’s Christmas chant”.

Husk, writing in 1864, stated:

This piece is found on broadsides printed at Newcastle at various periods during the last hundred and fifty years. On one of these sheets, nearly a century old, it is entitled “An Old English Carol,” but it can scarcely be said to fall within that description of composition, being rather fitted for use in playing the game of “Forfeits,” to which purpose it was commonly applied in the metropolis upwards of forty years since. The practice was for one person in the company to recite the first three lines; a second, the four following; and so on; the person who failed in repeating her portion correctly being subjected to some trifling forfeit.

“Twelve days of Christmas” was adapted from similar New Years’ or spring French carols, of which at least three are known, all featuring a partridge, perdriz or perdriole, as the first gift. The pear tree appears in only the English version, but this could also indicate a French origin. According to Iona and Peter Opie, the red-legged (or French) partridge perches in trees more frequently than the native common (or grey) partridge and the red-legged variant was not successfully introduced into England until about 1770.

Cecil Sharp observed that “from the constancy in English, French, and Languedoc versions of the ‘merry little partridge,’ I suspect that ‘pear-tree’ is really perdrix (Old French pertriz) carried into England”; and “juniper tree” in some English versions may have been “joli perdrix,” [pretty partridge]. Sharp also suggests the adjective “French” in “three French hens”, probably simply means “foreign”.

(The French are very foreign, of course.)

In the northern counties of England, the song was often called the “Ten Days of Christmas”, as there were only ten gifts. It was also known in Somerset, Dorsetshire, and elsewhere in England. The kinds of gifts vary in a number of the versions, some of them becoming alliterative tongue-twisters. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was also widely popular in the United States and Canada. It is mentioned in the section on “Chain Songs” in the Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (Indiana University Studies, Vol. 5, 1935), p. 416.

There is evidence pointing to the North of England, specifically the area around Newcastle upon Tyne, as the origin of the carol. Husk, in the 1864 excerpt quoted above, stated that the carol was “found on broadsides printed at Newcastle at various periods during the last hundred and fifty years”, i.e. from approximately 1714. In addition, many of the nineteenth century citations come from the Newcastle area.


Day Four of pretending we know how to handle a cruiser made for eight people. So far the score is large sticky-outey trees 2, deck furniture and paintwork nil.

One of the most peculiar (and pleasant) features of travelling without a set itinerary is when one happens across people with whom one has an in-built affinity. One supports the same football team, went to the same school, have a mutual acquaintance, etc.

On the current exploration of Brittany, et après Le Canal du Midi, (bucket list – tick), we have met precisely three groups of fellow travellers who speak English … meaning that one’s schoolboy French has been getting a bit of a workout. Astonishingly, given that I grew up in Bournemouth and then went to University in Southampton, which duly became my adopted home before I eventually moved to Melbourne, two of the groups we met were from Southampton, and one from Bournemouth. What are the odds? Quite.

Thus it was no surprise, really, when the drunken but cheery garbologist we were chatting to in a small bar in the ludicrously pretty village of Colombieres, where we had moored for two nights waiting for gale force winds to subside, suddenly announced to us in insistent French that there were two Aussies living just around the corner. Adopting a well worn practice he had obviously observed from English tourists, he simply kept saying the same thing louder and louder until we indicated we understood him, which we did, partly, but we were more concerned about our hearing, and increasingly troubled by his startlingly crossed eyes, which were becoming more manic by the moment.

Anyway, he shot off out of the bar and we assumed, incorrectly, that he had gone walkabout to fetch said Aussies. He hadn’t, he’d just gone off on a slightly crazed walkabout, maddened by our inability to follow his ravings, one suspects. So a couple of beers later, we set off in the general direction he had indicated, hoping against hope to run into Les Australiennes. Why we would imagine for one moment that we would find them is just one of those inexplicable moments of confidence that occur when on holiday. And as luck – or walking confidently – would have it, within five minutes stroll we came across a magnificently restored Belgian barge moored round the corner from the bar, with the unmissable name “Oz” and bestrewn with more than a few Aussie flags.


A big sign announced it was a “bed and breakfast” establishment, so we rang the number on the sign. Of course they would want to meet us, we reasoned. Fellow Aussies, marooned in deepest France Sud. When the phone was answered in an impeccable French accent, one was initially perturbed, then delighted, to learn that the owners were, indeed, Aussies, but that Dominique, of Dominique and Gwen, was actually a French Australian who had run bars in King’s Cross in Sydney, and who happened to count Jimmy Barnes as a personal friend, and who had returned to his homeland to pursue the quixotic but magnificent task of restoring the barge to her former glory.

Unburdened by customers for a day or so, Dominique immediately bought us a beer back at the bar, gave us the lowdown on how to find a bus on the morrow to get into nearby Beziers (as we had decided the seven lock hill into the ancient town was a potential boat-wrecking step too far for our rudimentary bateuax-handling skills) and then offered to introduce us to the local winemaker, Louis, the next afternoon.

Which is how we came, by and by, to be sampling Louis’ exquisite reds and rosés, accompanied by a running and vibrant discussion in Franglais on the relative merits of Australian and French wine. And afterwards, how we fetched up on the Oz, more than a little tipsy, to admire the astonishing renovation Dominique and Gwen had triumphantly pulled off, and to enjoy a meal of pork sausages, fricassied potatoes with garlic, and the most perfect champignons with more garlic and parsley, washed down with some more excellent local wine. No recompense would be accepted, Dominque was simply delighted to chat about the good old wild old days in Sydney, and for Gwen to enjoy the company of some dinky di fellow antipodeans. An utterly delightful time was had by all.


Two things struck me in particular. Louis was, astoundingly, the eighth generation of vignerons to be growing grapes and crafting wines in the same location. His antecedents began the business back in the days of Louis XV. The family had survived Lord knows how many wars, depressions, insurrections, revolutions and the like, without ever losing their heads, or their wine business. Louis himself seemed to embody why – a man of strong but courteously advanced opinions, grizzled white hair, and amused pair of twinkling eyes, endlessly patient with our stumbling attempts to communicate, and fiercely proud of his own vision of how wine should be made. Without fining (cleaning the wine with egg white or fish to remove sediment), without preservatives to add shelf life but remove vitality, without a pre-determined formula and without storage in oak barrels, so as not to hide the complexity of the wine with mouth-filling dominant wood. Instead his wines were exquisitely nuanced blends of grapes chosen year on year to reflect local growing conditions.

They revealed themselves in lingering finishes, gentle tannins, and unexpected flavours, and were, in short, an eye opener. In an instant we were transported back to an age when French wine had not succumbed to the pervasive styles of the new world, where brash Australians, Chileans, and Americans had not smothered the globe with identical massive Cabernet Sauvignons and meaty Shirazs that you could cut with a knife. Here was wine as sophisticated and as playful as the culture that produced it. Louis was polite about Australian output, but worried that our palates, beaten into industrial submission for a generation, could simply not appreciate his efforts. He was, I suppose, partly right, and partly wrong. We were surprised – challenged, even – but appreciative.

What was most sad, though, was when he quietly said he thought there might only be four other winemakers in the entire region making small-run and near-perfect wines the way he does, with the feel of his gut, and hundreds of years of accumulated nous to guide him.


Especially when, reverently, we were introduced to his rosé Vin de Liquer, Desir. We were assured it was very alcoholic, but at 15%, we pondered, it was only a point or two above your average Aussie red. Quaffable. What was astounding was the vast complexity of flavours that exploded on the tongue. Sweet? Yes, on the sweet side, but with a crisp, balancing acidity too. It smelled of fruit … It smelled like the inside of a fruit shop, in fact, in which had been stacked fresh bales of new-mown hay. It was luscious in the mouth, but not cloying. It was, in short, a revelation. If this was what could be done with old-style wine-making, then vive les vieux! At just over ten Aussie Dollars a bottle, it was all Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink could do to stop me buying the entire output.

The second thing to strike us in these meanderings was the remarkable force of a dream. The same dream that drove Louis to keep making wine the way his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great-grandfather, great-great-great-grandfather, great-great-great-great-great-grandfather and great-great-great-great-great-grandfather had, impelled Dominique and Gwen to turn their back on well-paying jobs, and to turn, instead, this beautiful but battered old barge into a living labyrinthine beauty of comfortable berths and showers, with a glorious sitting and dining space up on deck, and transform it into a working memory of a more sedate and gracious time, when speed was most definitely not everything.


After seven years, they gladly and cheerfully confirmed that Oz was their private money hole, into which they had poured savings that they knew they would never quite recoup, but which they also knew had meant the creation of one of the more remarkable places anyone, especially their fellow Aussies, could stay along their beloved Canal.


Oh and by the way, should you drop by, Dominique is a prize-winning cocktail-maker too. Not that you’d be drinkers, an’ all, at all, Dear Readers. And Oz can be encouraged to actually move up and down the Canal with you on board, but honestly, I bet you ask for it to stay right where it is, moored two minutes walk from a superb Michelin-starred restaurant, not to mention a fifth-sixth century Church which has to be seen to be believed.

If you’re lucky, like us, you’ll happen upon it just as a wedding arrives.

And don’t be at all surprised to be asked to sit in and enjoy the ceremony. Especially when the locals discover you’re Australian, and not English.

Domaine Monlou +33 6 76 59 34 32
Oz the Barge +33 6 84 00 12 39