The Twelve Days of Christmas

Posted on 17th December 2019 by simonbeattie

Next on our Christmas carol countdown is ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’. It turns out we have the eighteenth century to thank for this beloved carol and its delightful assemblage of festive feathered friends; according to Keyte, the words first appeared in ‘various forms in broadsides from the early eighteenth century onward’ (p. 469). Lucy Worsley corroborates this claim in her recent BBC programme on the history of Christmas carols, when she pays a visit to the British Library to see it in printed in an 18th-century children’s book.

Here at the office, we have what Keyte notes is the first appearance of ‘Twelve Days’ in a collection of carols: William Henry Husk‘s Songs of the Nativity; being Christmas Carols, ancient and modern.  Several of which appear for the first Time in a Collection (London, John Camden Hotten, 1864). Husk’s collection also contains an early (though not the first; see Will Hale’s post on the Cambridge Special Collections blog) appearance of ‘The Holly and the Ivy’.

‘The Twelve Days’ as it appears in Husk. ‘Colley birds’ are black birds (colly, ‘dirtied with coal-dust or soot; grimy; coal-black’, OED).

‘If Gilbert and Sandys were the pioneers, William Henry Husk [1814–1887] was the popularizer.  Husk was a leading musical scholar of his day, librarian of the Sacred Music Society … and a contributor of many article to Sir George Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1878–90).  His influential Songs of the Nativity was published in 1864 … and the standard modern forms of many well-known carols derive from it …  Husk’s versions of tunes from Gilbert’s and Sandys’s collections (and others from elsewhere) have been stripped of their rhythmic crudities and melodic idiosyncrasies so as to render them notionally “correct” and more suited to conventional harmonization.  It was his book, with decorative borders and “Olde-Englishe” ambiance, that captured the imagination of the general public, and his versions of the tunes, further refined through the high-Victorian arrangements of Bramley and Stainer, that became the basis of the repertory on which most of us have been raised’ (Keyte).

Our copy of Husk in its original publisher’s binding.
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