The 12 Days of Christmas (Part 2) : Mirth without Mischief

Starting with Es Devlin’s Singing Christmas Tree and inspired by a year of volunteering at the V&A, Part 1 of this Blog included a glorious selection of Victoria and Albert Museum objects to illustrate the traditional song ‘The Twelve days of Christmas’. In this part (Part 2 : Mirth Without Mischief) I’m going to explore the origins of the twelve days of celebration and show you the earliest known printed version of the song.

Today we sing the lyrics and arrangement from a version first published by Frederic Austin in 1909 but the origins of the song are much older, deriving from a long oral tradition of memory and counting rhymes and the influence of Medieval French ‘caroles’.

The song first appeared in print in 1780 in the publication ‘Mirth without Mischief’. Although the book is one of many ‘chapbooks’ available to view digitally on the English Chapbook database, I think there is something rather special about touching a real book so I made an appointment at the V&A Archive at Blythe House to take a look at National Art Library (NAL) copy.

Mirth without Mischief is a delight. Delivered by one of the NAL staff on a huge grey cushion, this tiny ‘chap-book’, over 200 years old, is filled with songs, alphabets and a sign-language aide-memoir, all accompanied by wood block illustrations.

The book describes the song as being sung at King Peppin’s Ball. This could refer to Little King Pippin, King of the Good Boys, who would have been familiar to 18th century children as a fictional hero: affable, sweet tempered and giver of good advise. Or perhaps Pippin the Short (714-768), King of the Franks and father of Charlemagne? Or maybe it is a record, distorted over time and retelling, of some real Medieval or Renaissance Feast? There are manuscripts detailing truly extraordinary historic banquets such as the 1363 Banquet of the 5 kings at the Vintners Hall in London and the Duke of Burgundy’s 1484 Feast of the Pheasant that indicate that the parade in the song may not be just a flight of fancy.

Swans and peacocks, cooked and served ‘enkakyll’ (sewn back into their feathers) would have been on royal menus, attesting to the wealth and status of the host. ‘Subtleties’ and ‘Entrements’ to impress guests and entertain between courses might consist of elaborate food sculptures or enormous pies containing musicians or dancers. Sugar and marchpane (marzipan) creations would sometimes be gilded, the gold leaf symbolizing longevity and attesting to the riches and rank of the host. Fabulous sugar creations might include statues, trees or castles large enough to hold a flock of birds.

I like to think that the song might allude to a real Twelfth Night Feast.

Whilst today we tend to make more of celebrating New Year and just take our decorations down on the 6th of January (which is the 12th day after Christmas), in the 16th and 17th century the twelfth night would have been a raucous event of feasting and celebration to mark the end of festivities on the night of 5th January.

So why 12 nights? And why are the 5th and 6th January important? As with many of our Christmas celebrations and traditions, there isn’t a single explanation that accounts for the festivities ending after 12 nights. They derive from a wonderful muddle of different festivals, traditions and religions from all around the world. Ancient midwinter festivals celebrating the ‘rebirth’ of the sun after the shortest day, Roman Saturnalia and Dionysus cults, Persian Mithraism, Mesopotamian Marduk celebrations, Sami reindeers and shamen, Viking yuletide fire ceremonies, Victorian customs, New Testament Bible gospels of St Luke and St Matthew, the deeds and deaths of Christian Saints and many more besides.

In the Christian tradition, the three Magi took 12 days to arrive at the place of Christ’s birth with their gifts of gold, frankincense and Myrrh, so from the 4th Century AD (when 25 December was designated as Christ’s official birth day by the Western Church), there was a 12 day period of celebration leading to ‘Epiphany’ on 6th January. Peasants would then be expected to return to work on the following ‘Plough Monday’.

When the Gregorian calendar was first introduced in 1582 it was not adopted universally. Many countries continued to mark the years with older calendars. As Julian and Dionysus calendars fell out of synch with the new Gregorian calendar, the Christmas day celebrations diverged. When England joined the Gregorian calendar in 1752, 11 days were ‘lost’ and some parts of the country continued to celebrate Christmas day following the old tradition. Greece only adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1923. The Armenian Church continues to celebrate Christ’s birth on 6 January.

For more on Chap Books and visiting the NAL Archive at Blythe House, follow these links to the NAL:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *