Wright Words: Uncovering the surprising secrets behind ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’
You've been singing the "12 Days of Christmas" for as long as you can remember. You played it as a child on a plastic recorder at an elementary school concert wearing a festive red vest made out of scratchy construction paper and green yarn. You don’t remember standing on a rickety riser and wearing antlers made from brown pipe cleaners?
Wait, that was me.
That was about the time my father launched a family tradition based on that beloved carol. Each year we picked a family that needed a little magic during the season. Unlike many other Christmas traditions, the need wasn’t usually financial. It was about brushing color onto an otherwise black and white holiday season. Our targets were often dealing with December sadness: deaths, illness, empty nests, etc.
Dad created a small gift to go along with each of the 12 days and wrote a short letter explaining why the item wasn’t quite what they might have expected. Most were handmade, none cost more than a few dollars and each gift was utterly unpredictable.
The joy of the tradition was that we knew something no one else did. You’ve meant well, but the winter-cold truth is that you’ve been singing the song wrong all these years. There are, of course, many theories about the songwriter and what each day might mean. All are false.
What if the original songwriters were time-traveling elves?
It’s true. The song was written by a family of elves who traveled the globe by sleigh searching out gifts and writing verses along the way. Unfortunately, some of the lyrics were misunderstood or translated incorrectly through the years. This led to mass confusion.
Take, for instance, the "First Day of Christmas." You’ve always assumed they meant an actual "Partridge in a Pear Tree." The words are right, but the shocking truth is that the elves never meant a bird in a tree, they were sharing an experience in Brazil when they met David Cassidy hiding from a throng of screaming teenagers in an orchard. The gift on that first day was a single pear and a David Cassidy CD.
Then there’s the "Fifth Day of Christmas." The "Five Golden Rings" sounds pretty straight forward, except that the original rings weren’t all supposed to be jewelry. The elves dedicated years collecting rings from places like Saturn, a village called Aroundthecollar, the mysterious island of Yerneck, from the "Lord of the Rings" and one from the Olympic logo.
But a twist of fate changed history when the elves stumbled across a box of fresh Krispy Kreme glazed donuts and never looked back. To this day, whenever someone sings the fifth verse, a Krispy Kreme passes through the conveyor belt icing shower and gets it wings.
Were the "Ten Lords" really leaping? Sure, if you’re referring to paratroopers jumping over Times Square in 1779. It’s a long story, but it involves Dick Clark, King George and 10 men from the British House of Lords. The gift that night was a package of 10 toy paratroopers.
You get the idea.
I’m not sure who enjoyed this annual adventure more, my family or those on the receiving end of his wild deliveries. Some of my most cherished Christmas memories star my siblings and I sneaking like rookie spies up to dark porches, knocking on doors and racing through side yards to the getaway station wagon. We laughed, we tripped and my sister once lost a shoe that was waiting on the porch for her the next night.
In my family’s version of this unique tradition, the gifts and explanatory letters could differ from year to year. But even if the words changed, the message never did. The 12-night adventure was meant to share a little faith, hope and charity with someone in need. We heard nearly every year from secret intermediaries or in public settings how much the nightly deliveries had meant.
My own family has done our best to keep the tradition alive. We’ve not been as perfectly dedicated, and some years have passed with more busy excuses than quirky letters. But the spirit of the tradition is never far from our home or hearts.
Recently the elf family added a 13th day that takes place on Dec. 26, and I decided to fictionalize my childhood memories into a novel called "The 13th Day of Christmas." This bonus day was never part of my father’s version, but I think if he were alive today, this is where it would have evolved. It’s a new verse that suggests the real meaning of the sacred holiday is found the day after Christmas.
Are we different after celebrating the birth of the Savior? Are we rededicated to living better? Gifts, songs and laughs are meaningful, but following the Savior’s example is what gets us to our eternal home.
As Christmas approaches, you're likely to sing the carol a time or two — or 12. Next time you do, consider whether your family might be up to the challenge of selecting a worthy recipient and experimenting with the tradition.
You’ll be glad you did. And I promise that the Partridge family and Krispy Kremes will never be quite the same.
Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters" and "The 13th Day of Christmas." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or jasonfwright.com.
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