Public domain pic by Larisa Koshkina

Public domain pic by Larisa Koshkina

We’re now into the Twelve Days of Christmas – les jours festifs. Opinion seems pretty evenly divided as to whether these start on Christmas Day itself, what I’d always believed, or on Boxing Day. Here in France they tend towards the latter, so that the twelfth day is also Epiphany (6th January).

These really are the dark days of the year. The shortest day is over with the winter solstice on 21st December but there’s no obvious sign of the days getting longer yet. So it’s all pretty dreary. To try and cheer them up, over the years people have embued them with a sense of omen and mystery. The French came to believe that the weather on each of these twelve days reflected what you’d get in each month. So the weather on the first day of Christmas foretold what January would be like meteorologically, the second day February, and so on.

Here’s the dicton (proverb) about this:

Regarde comment sont menées

Depuis Noël douze journées

Car suivant ces douze jours

Les douze mois auront leur cours

See what happens on the twelve days that come after Christmas, because the following twelve months will share their characteristics.

These magical twelve days have different names in various parts of France and its associated territories. In Provence they’re called ‘Calendo’, in Berry (which we fall into) ‘épreuves’, in Lorraine ‘les douze petits mois’ and in Québec in Canada ‘journaux’.

And everyone knows the rhyme associated with the twelve days of Christmas. It originates from 1780 and was first set to music in 1842 by James O. Halliwell.

But what exactly is the song all about, with its abundance of birds and increasingly ridiculous presents! Well, it can be taken at face value and we can all be grateful that we don’t have this generous but presumably mentally unstable true love ourselves! Or, each day’s gift can be seen to designate an aspect of religious teaching. Under this interpretation, ‘my true love’ is Jesus, and as for the others:

  • Wonderful: a trio of Berry Noires, our local breed. These are on my shopping list too.

    Three genuinely French hens!

    the partridge in a tree is Jesus on the cross</li>

    • the two doves are the Old and New Testaments
    • the three hens are faith, hope and love
    • the four calling birds (songbirds) are Matthew, Luke, Mark and John who wrote the gospels
    • the five golden rings represent the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Book of Numbers, Deuteronomy
    • the six geese laying are the six days of creation (Monday to Saturday, Sunday being reserved as a rest day)
    • the seven swans swimming are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, fear of the Lord and piety. But, apparently, they could also symbolize the seven deadly sins of pride, avarice, envy, anger, gluttony, lust and sloth
    • the eight maids milking represent the eight beatitudes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
    • the nine ladies dancing represent the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness and temperance
    • the ten lords a-leaping symbolise the ten commandments
    • the eleven pipers are the eleven trustworthy apostles of Jesus
    • and the twelve drummers represent the beliefs of the Apostles’ Creed.
    • Elsewhere, the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes suggests that the gifts represent a list of different dishes or activities, each corresponding to a month of the year.</ul>

    I’m not sure how convincing either argument is. Maybe there’s a bit of both involved, who knows. Or maybe it was always intended as just a fun, nonsense song to brighten up the twelve days of Christmas.

    Here it is in French anyway, just the last verse:


    _Le douzième jour de Noël,

    mon grand amour m’a donné douze joueurs de tambour,

    onze joueurs de flûte,

    dix messieurs sautant,

    neuf dames dansant,

    huit fermières trayant,

    sept cygnes nageant,

    six oies pondant,

    cinq anneaux d’or,

    quatre oiseaux chantant,

    trois poules gloussant,

    deux tourterelles

    et une perdrix dans un poirier._


    You’ll notice there aren’t any French hens in the French version, just clucking ones!

    Enjoy the rest of your jours festifs.