Judging by its seasonal omnipresence even 240 years after it was written, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is undoubtedly one of the most enduring of all holiday tunes, perhaps because it is both catchy, slightly annoying, and fun to sing (a ranking by the New York Public Library likened it to the yuletide equivalent of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall”).
Yet though it was most likely penned centuries ago in France, amid the contrasting poverty and excesses of the pre-Revolutionary era, and first published in England in 1780, even as the Empire grappled with tenacious rebels across the Atlantic in the 13 American colonies, the carol’s relevance to the modern United States — in which the spirit of Christmas is driven as much by consumerism as by holy reverence — goes far beyond that of a lighthearted “memory and forfeits” game or a cumulative ditty with which to mark a day of gift-giving. No, a literal interpretation of the lyrics reveals it is, in fact, a horrifying chronicle of capitalistic excess.
Allow me to explain.
I’ve known the lyrics to this classic backwards and forwards since I first sang it in elementary school choir, yet I never gave them much thought, aside from smirking at their ridiculous anachronism (from whence came these leaping lords? Has this “true love” of which we sing laden us with the responsibility of feeding and housing an army of milkmaids and a rabble of waterfowl? Ho-ho-ho indeed!). And yes, I’ve tittered at the annual media fervor over the calculated cost of all these many gifts, as adjusted for inflation.
Dispute settling time. In The 12 Days of Christmas, do the gifts stack, or are the gift numbers absolute? (i.e. do you get a partridge every day, for a total of 12 partridges, etc? Or just 1 partridge on the first day?)
— Dan McCoy (Skrimblebimble the Butt Cat) (@dankmccoy) November 30, 2020
Suddenly, what had always been a slightly silly song about a clearly rich but admirably lovesick fool became something darker. For the already excessive wealth on display in a casual reading of the lyrics — an outlay approaching $US40,000 ($53,816) in 2019 dollars, according to PNC Financial Services Group annual Christmas Price Index; eyebrow-raising but no more extreme than that which we accept as a matter of course from the modern celebrities we deify — grows downright demonic when you weigh the import of that critical conjunction: and.
As many of the respondents to Mr. McCoy’s informal survey noted, the recitation of “and a partridge in a pear tree” in the accounting of each days’ gifts heavily favours the interpretation that the recipient is given all of the items on each successive day, with a value that increases exponentially, as exemplified by the following equation:
12(1 partridge in a pear tree) + 11(2 turtle doves) + 10(3 French hens) + 9(4 calling birds) + 8(5 golden rigs) + 7(6 geese a-laying) + 6(7 swans a-swimming) + 5(8 maids a-milking) + 4(9 ladies dancing) + 3(10 lords a-leaping) + 2(11 pipers piping) + 1(12 drummers drumming)
Using the above referenced figures provided by PNC Financial Services Group in 2019, we can thus calculate the true value of these signifiers of “true love” as follows:
[12(1 partridge in a pear tree)] x $US210.17 ($283) + [11(2 turtle doves)] x $US300 ($404) + [10(3 French hens)] x $US181.50 ($244) + [9(4 calling birds)] x $US599.96 ($807) + [8(5 golden rigs)] x $US825 ($1,110) + [7(6 geese a-laying)] x $US420 ($565) + [6(7 swans a-swimming)] x $US13,135 ($17,672) + [5(8 maids a-milking)] x $US58 ($78) + [4(9 ladies dancing)] x $US7,552.84 ($10,162) + [3(10 lords a-leaping)] x $US10,000 ($13,454) + [2(11 pipers piping)] x $US2,748.87 ($3,698) + 1(12 drummers drumming) x $US2,972.25 ($3,999)
The total, to save you the calculation time, is $US131,676.68 ($177,158), an amount greater than the total net worth of 65 per cent of Americans. As the wealth gap in our nation only widens, I think we can all agree this sort of display — even spread across 12 days — is, frankly, less a sign of romantic devotion and more an indicator of a disturbing self-centeredness bordering on narcissism.
Perhaps I protest too much. Perhaps “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is but a nonsense song filled with meaningless, outlandish imagery. Or perhaps: Perhaps it is the carol non plus ultra for a year in which hundreds of thousands of the poorest Americans have died of a virus that has hardly touched the moneyed classes who could have used their wealth to help ameliorate so much of that suffering. For a year in which rank-and-file citizens have been sternly admonished by wealthy, powerful officials to stay home and sup on solitary, home-cooked holiday meals while they themselves dine out lavishly and jet off to overseas resorts. For a year in which the Senate majority fights to protect the rights of businesses not to be sued for putting their employees in danger while ignoring a rising need for direct cash relief to those who need it most.
Yes, at its most literal level, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a chronicle of sickening avarice fit for a year like 2020. But remember: These lyrics were first put to paper in France, in 1780. We need only cast our eyes a few years forward in history to observe the fate that awaited an aristocracy indifferent to the suffering of the common people. Justice falls on a knife blade. “Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death; — the last, much the easiest to bestow.” Merry Christmas!