“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is one of the most familiar traditional non-religious Christmas songs. It, along with “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” are the best-known examples of what is known as a cumulative song, in which each verse builds upon the one before. It is believed that this type of song originally served either as a memory builder or as a game.
The song is either of English or French origin, with the former more likely. The words were first published in London in 1780, implying it had been around before then. Over a period of more than a century, the list of gifts varied somewhat; the final version, more or less, was codified by Frederic Austin (1872-1952) in 1909.
I wish to clear up two stories about the song, one true, one false. First, it is true that the oldest versions refer to “four colly birds” (blackbirds) rather than “four calling birds,” which is in the 1909 version. So if you see a reference to “colly birds,” it’s not wrong, but archaic. Second, it is false that the gifts have some coded theological meaning for persecuted Catholics in England; this claim seems to have been made up around 1979 and then expounded upon during the 1980s. As one who grew up Catholic, if this was true, I would have heard about it in Sunday school or in the halls of the University of Notre Dame, and I didn’t. Even now, I sometimes see this urban legend posted as fact. It’s not.
Anyway, back to the song: Outside the context of a “memory and forfeits” game, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is pretty boring. In fact, the version recorded by the Chipmunks in 1963 has Alvin complaining about the song’s length, including him saying “I’m getting tired” and “Can we stop now, Dave?” This may be why it is the most parodied of all songs associated with this time of year.
Even those artists who sing it relatively straight add some flourishes to keep it interesting, from the slowed-down “seven swans a-swimming” in Perry Como’s version, to the addition of the word “gaily” in later verses of the Ray Conniff Singers version, to the way Miss Piggy, pardon the expression, hams it up when she sings “five gold rings – ba-dum-bum-bum” in the Muppets’ version with John Denver.
As for the variations, Andy Williams (“a song and a Christmas tree”), Allan Sherman (“a Japanese transistor radio”), and the Sinatra Family (“a most lovely lavender tie”) sang it with different sets of gifts, as did Canadians Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas under the name “Bob and Doug McKenzie” (“a beer… in a tree”). Jeff Foxworthy created a “Redneck 12 Days of Christmas.” Radio DJ Bob Rivers came up with the “Twelve Pains of Christmas,” describing different annoying aspects of the holiday season. More recently, the a cappella group Straight No Chaser decided that the “12 Days of Christmas” should be sung to the tune of Toto’s hit song “Africa.” And then there are the “Twelve Days After Christmas,” a popular choral number written by Frederick Silver in which the recipient tells the true love what was done with all those goofy gifts – and it’s not pretty. And this is far from a complete list.
This, at last, in almost as long a buildup as the song itself, gets us to the version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” that serves as my Christmas Song of the Day for December 28.
Craig Courtney (born 1948) wrote “A Musicological Journey Through the Twelve Days of Christmas” as a commissioned work for the Columbus (Ohio) Symphony Chorus and its 1990 Holiday Pops Concert. The piece then was published in 1991. Each verse of the song is set in a different style of classical music, from the first day as Gregorian chant to the twelfth day as…oh, I won’t ruin the surprises if you haven’t heard it before. It’s one of Courtney’s most popular works, and every couple years or so, he posts the sources of each verse on his Facebook page. I’ll add them to the end of this article, after the link to YouTube.
I first learned of this fun piece in 2014, when the Jefferson Choral Society of Lynchburg, Va., of which I am a member, performed it for its Christmas concert. We pulled it out again for our 2022 concert. It’s always enjoyable to watch and listen to the reactions of audience members as each day is sung in a different style.
“A Musicological Journey Through the Twelve Days of Christmas” has been performed by countless groups over the years. Possibly its high point is when the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, with its hundreds of voices and large orchestra, recorded it in front of a live audience for its 1994 CD This Is Christmas.
This is the version I present today. It’s long (12 minutes), but worth it. Have fun with “A Musicological Journey Through the Twelve Days of Christmas” by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
A spoiler alert from Craig Courtney himself, from his Facebook page:
I often get asked which classical pieces A Musical Journey Into the 12 Days of Christmas are based on. Here they are:
- Day 1: Gregorian Chant
- Day 2: Ars Nova
- Day 3: In the style of Palestrina
- Day 4: Vivaldi’s Gloria
- Day 5: In the style of C.P.E. Bach
- Day 6: In the style of Mozart
- Day 7: Saint-Saens’ The Swan
- Day 8: Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries
- Day 9: Strauss’s Emperor Waltz
- Day 10: Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours
- Day 11: Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Reed Pipes
- Day 12: Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever
(A version of this entry was my Facebook-only Christmas Song of the Day for December 30, 2014.)