Medieval Twelve Days of ChristmasThe Twelve Days of Christmas was officially published in the 1700s, and was probably unknown as a song in medieval times. However, the items mentioned were, and the traditional of celebrating the twelve days between Christmas and the Epiphany (when the wise men arrived at the manger) were most definitely celebrated.
The first day begins on Christmas Day, so December 25th. The rest days go on from there until the final day is reached.
On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me a partridge in a pear tree. So this would be December 25th, Christmas Day. The day Christ was born. This was a big celebration for medieval folk, although they did not have a christmas tree with decorations on it. Pears have grown wild in England for thousands of years, and the Romans also loved to cultivate them. Partridges are also a classic bird found in England.
On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me two turtle doves. Turtle doves are mentioned in the Bible as symbols of loyalty and love. They were also definitely found in medieval England.
On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me three French hens. OK, so clearly these hens were brought in from France :) But that's fairly normal. The nobility in England during medieval times were all from French families, so they would bring in their favorite items from their homeland. If they had a type of chicken they really adored, they would bring them over the Channel.
On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me four colly birds. They are not "calling birds"! They are colly birds - blackbirds. Just like four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie. People ate blackbirds, they were considered a tasty treat. Maybe those four colly birds were baked into a small pie.
On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me five golden rings. Yes, gold was treasured in medieval England just as it's been treasured by most other cultures in the world in all eras. William the Conqueror had a large gold crown, and the tradition only grew from there. Both men and women wore gold rings, especially signet rings to seal important documents with.
On the sixth day of Christmas my true love gave to me six geese a laying. Geese were always popular in England, both for their large eggs and for their taste meat.
On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me seven swans a swimming. Just like geese, swans were a tasty treat and protective of their ponds as well.
On the eighth day of Christmas my true love gave to me eight maids a milking. Milking cows was an important part of medieval life. Note that people didn't tend to drink milk - pasteurization was not known back then. Much of it was used in cheese, which was a great way to store the calcium and nutrients in milk long term in a day before refrigeration.
On the ninth day of Christmas my true love gave to me nine ladies dancing. Dance was an important part of medieval celebration. Both men and women would dance.
On the tenth day of Christmas my true love gave to me ten lords a leaping. Most nobility were of French descent at this time, and Lords lived in castles and supported their King with troops and money.
On the eleventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me eleven pipers piping. Medieval festivals were often full of music and song. They didn't have MP3 players to pop out any tune they wished! It was quite a treat to have music and song. Drums, pipes, and lutes would often accompany voices. Pipers would refer to a simple form of bagpipe to add a melody.
On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me twelve drummers drumming. Yes, those pipers needed someone to keep the beat for them! And after Twelfth Day came Twelfth night, of which Shakespeare wrote!
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