10 Asses Racing: The Unknown History of the 12 Days of Christmas
On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me
Ten lords a-leaping ...
We're supposed to tell you a fact about lords a-leaping today, so maybe we could tell you the story of Lord Rolle. The day Queen Victoria ascended the throne, her coronation was attended by "poor old Lord Rolle," as Victoria called him, who was "82 and dreadfully infirm." He climbed the steps up toward her but fell and went flying. Victoria then moved her chair closer to save him some trouble on his second attempt.
There's lots we can tell you about that day, actually, from another Lord humblebragging about his sword being too heavy to the bishop putting Victoria's ring on the wrong finger, causing her much pain. But we can't tell it any better than Victoria herself, who documented the whole day in her diary, so we'll instead direct you to her diary, publicly available thanks to the Royal archives.
That gives us a second to step back and tell you a little something about the origin of this song we've been looking at, "The 12 Days of Christmas." Well, the origin is unknown, so we can't do that.
Yeah, when we titled this piece "The Unknown History of the 12 Days of Christmas," what, did you think we were just baiting you? No one knows who wrote the song, or when, or where, or why. The closest we can get to it is "probably England, maybe one town where we see a few extra records of it, likely right at the start of the 18th century," but you're not going to get anything firmer than that.
Still, we have a guess of how the song came about (and it's not that it's a coded retelling of the life of Jesus, like some email forwards claim). Have you ever played the game I Packed My Bag? When you're traveling in the car, one person says "I packed my bag with ... " and makes up an item, like a toothbrush. Then the second player says "I packed my bag with," makes up a second item, and also lists the previous item ("I packed my bag with a velociraptor and a toothbrush"). You keep going this way, the list getting longer and longer, till someone messes up.
Many games have used this same format, and "The 12 Days of Christmas" sounds a lot like one of them. The first player said, "On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me a partridge in a pear tree." The second player, paying no attention to the rhyme scheme or rhythm proposed by the first player, followed this up with "On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree."
The players after this added more items. Stuck on the bird theme, they kept picking birds (even "five gold rings" referred to ring-necked birds). Then for round eight, the funny member of the group broke the pattern and proposed the absurd gift of "eight maids a-milking." From here till the end of the game, players now listed people as gifts—ladies, lords, pipers, drummers—and if these made no sense, that's fine, that's always what these memory games devolve into.
That group of friends were so amused with the list they'd come up with that they wrote it down and turned it into a song. Barely a song, in terms of melody, structure, etc., but it was a song.
The version they wrote lived on. Alternative versions spread too. In one, on day 10, your true love gave you "ten asses racing," which would have caused much laughter in schoolchildren singing the song. Others included such terrifying gifts as "eleven badgers baiting" and "nine bears a-beating." Another had "ten ships a-sailing," a tremendous escalation in the value of gifts on offer—the likes of which we would not again see till "Santa Baby" followed up a demand for a car with one for "the deed to a platinum mine."
Top image: Xavier Romero-Frias