This is one of my favorite Christmas songs from my childhood. This is one of the songs we always sang at our Christmas Concerts in school. I'm going to share a little bit of history about the song...some of it I knew, some of it I didn't.
The twelve days in the song are the twelve days starting Christmas day, or in some traditions, the day after Christmas (December 26)to the day before Epiphany, or the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6, or the Twelfth Day). Twelfth Night is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "the evening of the fifth of January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of the Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking."
Specific origins are not known, but it is believed to have started out as a game where the leader would say one verse and the next person would repeat it and add a verse...and so on... Textual evidence indicates that the song was not English in origin, but French, though it is considered an English carol.
The earliest well-known version of the music of the song was recorded by English scholar James O. Halliwell in 1842, and he published a version in 4th edition The Nursery Rhymes of England (1846), collected principally from 'oral tradition'. In the early 20th century, English composer Frederic Austin wrote an arrangement in which he added his melody from "Five gold rings" onwards, which has since become standard.
No one has really figured out and explained the meaning of the song, but some Christians see meanings in the gifts...
A partridge in a pear tree - Jesus
Two turtle doves - The Old and New Testaments
Three French hens - The three kings bearing gifts
Four calling birds - The four Gospels
Five gold rings - The Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament
Six geese a-laying - The six days of Creation
Seven swans a-swimming - Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit
Eight maids a-milking - The eight Beatitudes
Nine ladies dancing - Nine fruits of the Holy Spirit
Ten lords a-leaping - The Ten Commandments
Eleven pipers piping - The eleven faithful Apostles
Twelve drummers drumming - The twelve points of the Apostles' Creed
No matter the origin or meaning behind it, it has always been and still is a fun song to sing for me and now my kids =)