Arguably the best known Christmas carol that nobody knows the words to, the 12 Days of Christmas has become so popular in recent years that it’s inspired parodies, pub crawls, football chants, and mashups. Thought to be of French origin and originally published in in England in 1780 without music as a rhyme, it’s been recorded by artists including the Muppets, Frank Sinatra (and his children), Perry Como and characters for Sesame Street.
But even if you’re clever enough to be able to keep up with these artists and remember all 364 gifts, you might be hard pushed to say why anyone would need anything like 40 golden rings.
In fact, nobody seems to know. It’s probable that the gifts are nonsense precisely because they’re confusing by nature; the carol may originally have been intended as a memory game for children (similar to ‘The Bog Down in the Valley-oh’). Given the difficulty people still have remembering all the gifts, this would certainly seem to make sense.
However, blogger John Z. Gardiner also proposes another suggestion: that the carol has its origins in Christianity, and that each of the gifts corresponds to a something given to man by God, the “true love”.The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes notes the other array of suggestions that have been made, such as representing food or sport for each month of the year.
Ultimately though, the seeming meaninglessness of the gifts is part of what gives the carol so much charm. While readings like these certainly aren’t discouraged, perhaps it’s best to let each person decide for themselves – or to continue to be bemused by the nonsense!