Swans mate for life.
The gift on the 7th day of the well-known yuletide song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, was “seven swans a-swimming”. A few species of birds remain coupled as long as they are alive. Like swans. The imagery, therefore, of an odd number of swimming swans (7 in the carol), is classical Humpty Dumpty.
Another queer allusion is the nine ladies dancing. Dancing is a not-so innocent foreplay in courtship, involving at least two members from the opposite sex — multiple participants, as in the Quadrille, Square Dance, Schottische, Hookie Bookie, etc., but there are always gentlemen and ladies involved.
The last of these quaint gifts is #10, the “ten lords a-leaping.” That’s not what the aristocracy does. They might if they lingered too long at the punch bowl, but then the lyrics should’ve been about Lords a-Leaning!
What it all adds up to is this: the poem was written as a parlor game to keep children entertained while their parents engaged themselves otherwise. The song was a child’s nonsense piece, so, any nonsense worked. Composed in 1780, its untamed gaiety remained entrenched for two hundred years. Then in 1979 the church got involved. A cleric thought he detected religious themes in the images and metaphors of the song, and a parlor game of “forfeits” became a catechetical one of gotchas.
Consider this: the most ubiquitous phrase in the song is “my True Love,” the anonymous donor from whose largesse all these disparate gifts tumble in rhythmic cadence. The said cleric reckoned it as a reference to God. However, in the original version it was “my Mother” who gave the gifts, not my True Love.
Again, those calling birds, which are taken as a reference to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (the authors of the gospels), were not there in the original. It was the word “calla” (or “black”) that was the descriptor until Austin changed it in 1909.
One final thought. The prelate thought the Partridge in a Pear Tree (the first gift), was a reference to Jesus Christ — a convenient assumption: Christ was born on Christmas Day, the day on which the song begins as the First Day of Christmas. Counting forwards puts the 12th day on the 6th of January, known as Three Kings Day. This has traditionally been the period taken as covering the twelve days. Now, enter the reforming business side of the yuletide.
Since all seasonal spending ends on Christmas Eve, the challenge for the business establishments was and still is, to get into the “black” by then. The captains of commerce had the solution: take this traditional song with its overload of silly, catchy repetition that everyone knows, and use it to change the narrative. Twelve days was about right to save the bottom line.
December 25th is now the 12th day of Christmas! It’s a money-making draw, but the logic hardly rises above the silliness of the poet’s original purpose!
OK, then. Whether it’s Three Kings Day or Christmas Day, let’s just remember that the Christ child is the reason for singing. Merry Christmas.