"The Twelve Days of Christmas" Lyrics, Old and New

01
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Modern version

A Partridge in a Pear Tree
Owain Kirby/Illustration Works/Getty Images

It has been argued that "The Twelve Days of Christmas" originated as an "underground catechism song" for oppressed Catholics living in Protestant England between the 16th and 19th centuries. Given that the argument rests on the supposed symbolism of specific objects listed in the lyrics, it's instructive to examine how the words have changed down through the years We'll begin with the modern version everyone is familiar with.

THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS
(Traditional song, modern version)

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.

On the fourth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the fifth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the sixth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Six geese a-laying,
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the seventh day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
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.

On the eighth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
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.

On the ninth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
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.

On the tenth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Ten 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.

On the eleventh day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Eleven pipers piping,
Ten 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.

On the twelfth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Twelve drummers drumming,
Eleven pipers piping,
Ten 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.

02
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1889 Example

THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS
(Traditional, as published in The Folk-Lore Journal, 1889)

The first day of Christmas my true love sent to me:
The sprig of a juniper tree.

The second day of Christmas my true love sent to me:
Two turtledoves and the sprig of a juniper tree.

The third day of Christmas my true love sent to me:
Three French hens, two turtledoves,
And the sprig of a juniper tree.

The fourth day of Christmas my true love sent to me:
Four coloured birds, three French hens,
two turtledoves, and the sprig of a juniper tree.

The fifth day of Christmas my true love sent to me:
Five gold rings, four coloured birds, three French hens,
two turtledoves, and the sprig of a juniper tree.

The sixth day of Christmas my true love sent to me:
Six geese a-laying, five gold rings, four coloured birds,
three French hens, two turtledoves,
and the sprig of a juniper tree.

The seventh day of Christmas my true love sent to me:
Seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying,
five gold rings, four coloured birds, three French hens,
two turtledoves, and the sprig of a juniper tree.

The eighth day of Christmas my true love sent to me:
Eight hares a-running, seven swans a-swimming,
six geese a-laying, five gold rings, four coloured birds,
three French hens, two turtledoves,
and the sprig of a juniper tree.

The ninth day of Christmas my true love sent to me:
Nine bulls a-roaring, eight hares a-running,
seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying,
five gold rings, four coloured birds, three French hens,
two turtledoves, and the sprig of a juniper tree.

The tenth day of Christmas my true love sent to me:
Ten men a-mowing, nine bulls a-roaring,
eight hares a-running, seven swans a-swimming,
six geese a-laying, five gold rings, four coloured birds,
three French hens, two turtledoves,
and the sprig of a juniper tree.

The eleventh day of Christmas my true love sent to me:
Eleven dancers a-dancing, ten men a-mowing,
nine bulls a-roaring, eight hares a-running,
seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying,
five gold rings, four coloured birds,
three French hens, two turtledoves,
and the sprig of a juniper tree.

The twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me:
Twelve fiddlers a-fiddling, eleven dancers a-dancing,
ten men a-mowing, nine bulls a-roaring,
eight hares a-running, seven swans a-swimming,
six geese a-laying, five gold rings, four coloured birds,
three French hens, two turtledoves,
and the sprig of a juniper tree.

03
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1888 Example

THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS
(Traditional, as published in The Monthly Chronicle of North-Country Lore and Legend, 1888)

The first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
A partridge on a pear tree.

The second day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
Two turtle doves, and a partridge on a pear tree.

The third day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
Three French hens, two turtle doves, and
A partridge on a pear tree.

The fourth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
Four colly birds, three French hens,
Two turtle doves, and a partridge on a pear tree.

The fifth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
Five gold rings, four colly birds, three French hens,
Two turtle doves, and a partridge on a pear tree.

The sixth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
Six geese a-laying, five gold rings,
Four colly birds, three French hens,
Two turtle doves, and a partridge on a pear tree.

The seventh day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
Seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying,
Five gold rings, four colly birds, three French hens,
Two turtle doves, and a partridge on a pear tree.

The eighth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
Eight maids a-milking, seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying, five gold rings,
Four colly birds, three French hens,
Two turtle doves, and a partridge on a pear tree.

The ninth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
Nine drummers drumming, eight maids a-milking,
Seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying,
Five gold rings, four colly birds, three French hens,
Two turtle doves, and a partridge on a pear tree.

The tenth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
Ten pipers piping, nine drummers drumming.
Eight maids a-milking, seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying, five gold rings,
Four colly birds, three French hens,
Two turtle doves, and a partridge on a pear tree.

The eleventh day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
Eleven ladies dancing, ten pipers piping,
Nine drummers drumming, eight maids a-milking,
Seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying,
Five gold rings, four colly birds, three French hens,
Two turtle doves, and a partridge on a pear tree.

The twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
Twelve lords a-leaping, eleven ladies dancing,
Ten pipers playing, nine drummers drumming,
Eights maids-a-milking, seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying, five gold rings,
Four colly birds, three French hens,
Two turtle doves, and a partridge on a pear tree.

04
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1842 Example

THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS
(Traditional, as published in Halliwell's The Nursery Rhymes of England, 1842)

The first day of Christmas
My mother sent to me
A partridge in a pear-tree.

The second day of Christmas
My mother sent to me
Two turtle-doves and a partridge in a pear-tree.

The third day of Christmas
My mother sent to me
Three French hens, two turtle doves,
and a partridge in a pear-tree.

The fourth day of Christmas
My mother sent to me
Four canary birds, three French hens, two
turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear-tree.

The fifth day of Christmas
My mother sent to me
Five gold rings, four canary birds,
three French hens, two turtle doves, and
a partridge in a pear-tree.

The sixth day of Christmas
My mother sent to me
Six geese a laying, five gold rings,
four canary birds, three French hens, two
turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear-tree.

The seventh day of Christmas
My mother sent to me
Seven swans a swimming, six geese a laying,
five gold rings, four canary birds,
three French hens, two turtle doves,
and a partridge in a pear-tree.

The eighth day of Christmas
My mother sent to me
Eight ladies dancing, seven swans a swimming,
six geese a laying, five gold rings,
four canary birds, three French hens,
two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear-tree.

The ninth day of Christmas
My mother sent to me
Nine lords a leaping, eight ladies dancing,
seven swans a swimming, six geese a laying,
five gold rings, four canary birds,
three French hens, two turtle doves,
and a partridge in a pear-tree.

The tenth day of Christmas
My mother sent to me
Ten ships a sailing, nine lords a leaping,
eight ladies dancing, seven swans a swimming,
six geese a laying, five gold rings,
four canary birds, three French hens,
two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear-tree.

The eleventh day of Christmas
My mother sent to me
Eleven ladies spinning, ten ships a sailing,
nine lords a leaping, eight ladies dancing,
seven swans a swimming, six geese a laying,
five gold rings, four canary birds,
three French hens, two turtle doves,
and a partridge in a pear-tree.

The twelfth day of Christmas
My mother sent to me
Twelve bells ringing, eleven ladies spinning,
ten ships a sailing, nine lords a leaping,
eight ladies dancing, seven swans a swimming,
six geese a laying, five gold rings,
four canary birds, three French hens, two
turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear-tree.

[Each child in succession repeats the gifts of the day, and forfeits for each mistake. This accumulative process is a favorite with children; in early writers, such as Homer, the repetition of messages, &c. pleases on the same principle.]

05
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1842 Example

THE YULE DAYS
(Traditional, as published in The Popular Rhymes of Scotland, 1842)

The king sent his lady on the first Yule day,
A pippin go aye;
Wha learns my carol and carries it away?

The king sent his lady on the second Yule day,
Three partridges, a pippin go aye;
Wha learns my carol and carries it away?

The king sent his lady on the third Yule day,
Three plovers, three partridges, a pippin go aye;
Wha learns my carol and carries it away?

The king sent his lady on the fourth Yule day,
A goose that was grey, three plovers, three partridges,
A pippin go aye;
Wha learns my carol and carries it away?

The king sent his lady on the fifth Yule day,
Three starlings, a goose that was grey,
Three plovers, three partridges, and a pippin go aye;
Wha learns my carol and carries it away?

The king sent his lady on the sixth Yule day,
Three goldspinks, three starlings, a goose that was grey,
Three plovers, three partridges, and a pippin go aye;
Wha learns my carol and carries it away?

The king sent his lady on the seventh Yule day,
A bull that was brown, three goldspinks, three starlings,
A goose that was grey, three plovers, three partridges,
And a pippin go aye;
Wha learns my carol and carries it away?

The king sent his lady on the eighth Yule day,
Three ducks a-merry laying, a bull that was brown,
Three goldspinks, three starlings, a goose that was grey,
Three plovers, three partridges, a pippin go aye;
Wha learns my carol and carries it away?

The king sent his lady on the ninth Yule day,
Three swans a-merry swimming, three ducks a-merry laying,
A bull that was brown, three goldspinks, three starlings,
A goose that was grey, three plovers, three partridges,
A pippin go aye;
Wha learns my carol and carries it away?

The king sent his lady on the tenth Yule day,
An Arabian baboon, three swans a-merry swimming,
Three ducks a-merry laying, a bull that was brown,
Three goldspinks, three starlings, a goose that was grey,
Three plovers, three partridges, a pippin go aye;
Wha learns my carol and carries it away?

The king sent his lady on the eleventh Yule day,
Three hinds a-merry hunting, an Arabian baboon,
Three swans a-merry swimming, three ducks a-merry laying,
A bull that was brown, three goldspinks, three starlings,
A goose that was grey, three plovers, three partridges,
A pippin go aye;
Wha learns my carol and carries it away?

The king sent his lady on the twelfth Yule day,
Three maids a-merry dancing, three hinds a-merry hunting,
An Arabian baboon, three swans a-merry swimming,
Three ducks a-merry laying, a bull that was brown,
Three goldspinks, three starlings, a goose that was grey,
Three plovers, three partridges, a pippin go aye;
Wha learns my carol and carries it away?

The king sent his lady on the thirteenth Yule day,
Three stalks o' merry corn, three maids a-merry dancing,
Three hinds a-merry hunting, an Arabian baboon,
Three swans a-merry swimming, three ducks a-merry laying,
A bull that was brown, three goldspinks, three starlings,
A goose that was grey, three plovers, three partridges,
A pippin go aye;
Wha learns my carol and carries it away?