The story behind the classic carol

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Turtle doves, golden rings, a partridge in a pear tree—it can only mean one thing. The Christmas season is upon us, and it’s time to turn up the volume on our favorite holiday tunes. While many classic Christmas songs are self-explanatory—decking the halls, dashing through the snow, and walking in a winter wonderland all speak for themselves—there’s one carol that has always perplexed us. It’s "The 12 Days of Christmas,” the gifting bonanza that recounts verse after verse of veritable menagerie. Each time we sing it, the carol leaves us wondering: Where did it come from? And who would purchase all those impractical gifts?

The lyrics of “The 12 Days of Christmas” are an extravaganza of presents, some more practical than others. They unfold as a cumulative song, one that adds a verse with each repetition. The song itself is an English Christmas carol, and its earliest known appearance in print was in 1780, when it was published as a chant in a children’s book. While that’s widely accepted as its origin, some believe the verses have earlier origins in France.

The song likely began as verses of rhyme, and throughout its history, "The 12 Days of Christmas" has been associated with several melodies. Today it is most closely connected to a folk tune arranged by composer Frederic Austin. He added this particular music to the lyrics in 1909 and formed the song we sing today: “On the first day of Christmas, / My true love gave to me / A partridge in a pear tree.” The song continues, adding a verse with each refrain:

On the second day of Christmas / Two turtle doves
On the third day of Christmas / Three French hens
On the fourth day of Christmas / Four calling birds
On the fifth day of Christmas / Five golden rings
On the sixth day of Christmas / Six geese a-laying
On the seventh day of Christmas / Seven swans a-swimming
On the eighth day of Christmas / Eight maids a-milking
On the ninth day of Christmas / Nine ladies dancing
On the tenth day of Christmas / Ten lords a-leaping
On the eleventh day of Christmas / Eleven pipers piping
On the twelfth day of Christmas / Twelve drummers drumming

While the question remains whether or not it's possible to fit all those gifts under the Christmas tree, PNC Financial Services has taken it upon themselves to tally up the cost of all the gifts, adjusting each year for relevant economic factors. The PNC Christmas Price Index (CPI) figured the total of the gifts included in the carol, if purchased in 2017, to be $34,558.65. That’s an increase from 2016’s CPI because, as PNC explains, “The cost of this year's CPI rose ever so slightly, driven by the cost increases for the Pear Tree, the increased demand for Golden Rings, and wage increases for the Lords-a-Leaping.” If you're planning to give any of those gifts this year, you'd better start saving now.

Keep an eye out for the release of this year's CPI, and for more holiday music, listen to the top 50 Christmas songs of all time as chosen by our editors.

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What are your favorite Christmas carols? What holiday songs do you find yourself singing all season long?