Christmas is a time of magic and wonder. The mysteries of the holiday—how can all the presents be delivered in one night? What’s that odd new gift under the tree? Why does grandma smell like rum?—are part of what makes it so enjoyable. Just like you don’t really want to know how the sausages are made, maybe you don’t really want to know where all the presents come from. Upon closer inspection, Santa Claus, like his father, Jesus, starts to fall apart.
(Finding out that Santa doesn’t exist ruined my life. It was devastating to discover that I had spent all of those years sitting in the laps of ordinary, unmagical men.)
There are some mysteries, however, that can be solved; mysteries where a little knowledge and insight can even cause your appreciation of Christmas to grow. Chief among these mysteries is the popular carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Every year millions of people hear this song, and every year none of them have any idea what the hell it means. It’s like a puzzle wrapped in a riddle wrapped in the music they play at the mall. Who is giving these gifts? Why? And what kind of gift is “ten lords a-leaping?” That’s massive property damage just waiting to happen.
Friends and elves, the answers to these questions can be found in our history books, our museums, and our hearts. More conveniently for you, they can also be found below.
My true love sent to me…
The singer of the song is the receiver of the following gifts, also known as the “catcher.” The singer’s “true love” is rarely ever their real true love, and is commonly a spouse or a mere infatuation. Settling on this person is done for convenience, brevity, and because it is the only thing that makes the pain go away.
Twelve Drummers Drumming
Drummers, as everyone knows, are the least important members of any band. At the very least, are the only members of any band that can be replaced by a small plastic machine. The “twelve drummers” are a testament to these oft-overlooked time-keepers and can be listed as follows: Neil Peart, John Bonham, Peter Criss , four drummers from Spinal Tap, Keith Moon, Brad Wilk, the Boss DR670 Drum Machine, Charlie Watts, and this guy I work with who said he plays drums and thinks he can make it to practice on Sunday.
Eleven Pipers Piping
After spending a couple days with the relatives and spreading out the Christmas cookies and fruitcakes, everybody likes to do a little piping. It’s a good idea to stuff a towel under your door and burn some incense before you turn on your Christmas lights and puff a little holly, just in case your parents aren’t as taken by the holy spirit as you are.
Also, Santa sees you when you’re asleep, awake, and blazing, so if he happens to drop in, make sure to pass the pipe.
Ten Lords a-Leaping
The “ten lords” reference goes back to a simpler time, when British Lords had to leap over obstacles to lay claim to their land.
In the winter season, when having a roof overhead was highly desirable, lords were known to leap over as much as seven sheep and a duck to get a place to stay. Ten lords, of course, could wrangle up a good amount of land, but they were extremely hesitant to work together. The lord was a solitary beast who enjoyed feasting on the fruits of his labor himself; a man who would dine on his own food at his own table, drink his own lager and sleep in his own bed; a man who put his accomplishments and his ability to leap above all else.
Sadly, a bout of restless leg syndrome all but wiped out the leaping lords long ago, leaving behind only this simple line of remembrance.
Nine Ladies Dancing
These nine ladies are strippers. Dancing Christmas strippers. For everybody.
I mean, it’s the holidays, right?
Eight Maids a-Milking
These milking maids were added to the song by the women’s suffrage movement in the early 1900s.
Before 1920, the line was, “Eight Men a-Milking, Because Women Lack Brains Large Enough to Comprehend the Simple Act of Milking a Cow (or Voting).” The new lyric added a lot to the song’s rhythm and flow, but thousands of strapping young milk lads suddenly found themselves out of work, and were forced to turn their talents to goat milking, taffy-tugging, and the Catholic Church.
Seven Swans a-Swimming
Swans represent beauty, and nothing sends them swimming away like holiday meals. Holiday weight gain has been around for centuries, and only abated during the black plague, when people were spending less time eating and more time dying. As one Italian fashion magazine put it, “Heading into Europe for the holidays? Forget the bloodletting diet—dead is the new thin!”
Six Geese a-Laying
I’m not gonna beat around the bush: geese get horny around Christmas. They see all the geese they haven’t seen in years, geese they haven’t seen since high school, and hey, some of them are looking pretty good.
If someone gives you geese, you can be sure that you’ll see those fowl fucking sooner or later. There’s no pretty way to put it. Geese will lay each other right on the ottoman, if you let them. But maybe that’s your thing. Christmas isn’t about judging.
Five Golden Rings
The five golden rings are another gift that was added to the song late in its life.
In 1986, the popular television show The A-Team was in its fifth season, and ratings had taken a sharp decline. NBC executives had a brilliant idea: advertise the show in a Christmas carol. Christmas carols were free and got loads of airtime during the holidays, so any Christmas carol that was promoting a TV show was bound to bring in a lot of new viewers.
The “five golden rings” are a reference to Mr. T’s B.A. Baracus, who wore incredible amounts of jewelry. Though ratings continued to slip, the carol brought in record numbers for the show’s Christmas episode, in which Baracus opined, “I pity the fool who tries to steal Christmas. I pity the fool!”
Four Calling Birds
Calling birds make a great gift because they’re reliable. You never have to ask a calling bird, “What, they don’t have PHONES in Mexico?” Calling birds will always call or, at the very least, text. Unlike your boyfriend. I mean, it’s Christmas, it’s not like he’s in class or anything. The least he could do is call you. God! If you ever want to talk about it, you know I’m here. I just took an elective class in back massage.
Three French Hens
The hens represent the holy trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
If you think it’s strange that French poultry acts as a symbol for one of Christianity’s most important tenets, take a step back and think about a holiday where Jesus is represented by a fat man in a red suit. Take a real long look at that one. If you still have problems, then…I don’t know, they’re for eating. People eat the hens. Merry Christmas.
Two Turtle Doves
Why only two turtle doves, after all the other birds in this song? Because these two turtle doves are the most famous turtle doves of them all: the turtle doves who saved Christmas.
Now, these weren’t normal turtle doves; they fell into a puddle of ooze and were mutated into adolescent fighting doves. A rat tried to teach them ninjitsu, but they promptly ate him. When an evil man in a metal suit tried to steal Christmas, the Mutant Fighting Doves laid the smack down on him in an acrobatic and most merciless way. The soundtrack had Vanilla Ice on it. It’s a whole thing.
A Partridge in a Pear Tree
This may be the most mysterious and incomprehensible line in the entire carol. Why a partridge? Why a pear tree? Who gives these kinds of gifts? Who wants them? How do you wrap a pear tree? Is there some sort of delivery service that can guarantee both a partridge and a pear tree by Christmas? If the partridge leaves the pear tree, can I get my money back? In cases of severe allergies, can the pear tree be replaced by a poplar tree, since the alliterative construct is basically the same?
Fortunately, there are answers to all these questions. They are: Why not, why not, Santa, everybody, with paper, yes, no, and no.