Morris dancers and merriment: The real meaning of 12 Days of Christmas

An Indian painting of Krishna and the Gopis representing the Eights Maids-a-Milking at the museum. Picture: PA
An Indian painting of Krishna and the Gopis representing the Eights Maids-a-Milking at the museum. Picture: PA
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GENERATION upon generation has merrily sung one of the best known Christmas songs – but with very little idea of what it is actually about.

Now, a Scottish museum is giving visitors the opportunity to find out the story behind The Twelve Days of Christmas using a host of unusual props.

Morris dancers: Leaping lords

Morris dancers: Leaping lords

Curators at the Glasgow 
Museums Resource Centre have put together a special themed tour of the treasure-house which is home to more than a million objects not currently on display at the city’s museums.

Stuffed birds, an Indian painting and an African drum have been dusted off to describe the possible origins of the song, which first appeared in print in 1780 and refers to the 12 days between Christmas Day and 
6 January, or Epiphany, the day Christians celebrate the visit of the three kings to Bethlehem to see Jesus.

The 12 days of Christmas were a time of partying and feasting, and the song probably describes the food and activities associated with it, according to Anna Lehr, a learning assistant at the centre.

Ms Lehr said: “Everyone has probably heard it or even sung the song, but you might not have ever really thought what it was all about.

“We decided to see if we could match all the different items in the song to the objects in our collection. We have a nice eclectic mix for the festive period and it’s a nice thing for families to do together in between Christmas and new year.

“I think the pheasants are very popular simply because they are spectacular with their long tails.

“The baby swans are always popular with the kids.”

The song is thought to have its origins as a “memories and forfeits” game, in which a leader recites a verse which is repeated by the rest of the players until someone makes a mistake. The player who makes a mistake would have to pay some form of penalty. According to The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, “suggestions have been made that the gifts have significance, as representing the food or sport for each month of the year”.

On the first day of Christmas …

. . . My true love sent to me, A partridge in a pear tree.

Although a partridge is a ground-nesting bird, alliteration has placed it in a pear tree. Dried fruits have been a traditional part of Christmas treats since the middle ages.

Two turtle doves.

A symbol of romance, the

turtle dove mates for life. Live turtle doves were sometimes kept as pets in a cage as a symbol of love and fidelity.

Three French hens.

More likely to end up on the table than kept in a gilded cage, the French hens were probably something like a modern-day chicken.

Four Collie birds.

Often mis-sung as “calling” birds. Collie bird was a term for a blackbird. In the 18th century blackbirds were commonly eaten.

Five gold rings.

You might be mistaken for thinking the five gold rings refer to jewellery, but in fact it is yet another bird. The ring-necked pheasant has a gold pattern around its neck. Pheasants in mediaeval times were only eaten by the nobility.

Six geese a laying.

Still the most popular Christmas lunch in France, geese have been largely superceded by turkey on Brits’ Christmas tables.

Seven swans a swimming.

Right up until the nineteenth century roast swan was a traditional part of the Christmas feast in royal households and at other royal banquets.

Eight maids a milking.

A painting of the Indian god Krishna has been chosen to represent the eighth verse in the traditional Christmas song. Krishna plays his flute to charm the Gopis – the milkmaids who are devoted to him.

Nine ladies dancing.

The Minuet, by Duncan McKellar, shows a formal

dance in seventeenth century France.

Ten lords a leaping

Probably refers to professional morris dancers who performed between courses wielding their staffs. To depict this the curators chose a sculpture by Tom Deko from Papua New Guinea made of recycled stove parts and showing a warrior defending his fallen comrade.

Eleven pipers piping.

Bagpipes were popular at royal feasts from the time of James VI, but the curators chose a Chinese recorder made from bamboo to illustrate the 11th verse of the traditional song.

Twelve drummers drumming.

A small festival drum from the Congo has been chosen to represent the last verse of the song. During the traditional Christmas feast, a drum may have been used to announce the arrival of the next course.