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The Game Called 12 Days of Christmas (demystifying the myth)

adult learning game-based learning gamification instructional design Dec 22, 2021

When I was at summer camp we sang the song, “There’s a hole at the bottom of the sea.” Each verse expanded until the final round went: 

There's a fleck on the speck on the tail
On the frog on the bump on the branch
On the log in the hole in the bottom of the sea

There's a hole, there's a hole,
There's a hole in the bottom of the sea.

There was also a song about a lady swallowing a spider that repeats the line, “Perhaps she’ll die.” The song ends with her swallowing a horse, and the song ends with “She’s dead of course.” (It’s a children’s song.)

These songs use a game mechanic known as Memory-and-Forfeit. But more about that in a few minutes. 

All this came to mind because while we were discussing a series of posts that went along with the 12 Days of Christmas, a member of the team claimed that 12 Days of Christmas is really a song of Catechism for Catholics living in England when the Anglican Church outlawed Catholic worship.

I scoffed because of all the birds at the beginning of the song and all the people dancing, leaping, and milking cows later in the song. But, when you Google it, sure enough, posts break down what each stanza represents. 

But wait a minute, if this song teaches the Catechism, how did young people learn it the rest of the year? 

When we take a closer look, it turns out that the first report of Christian symbolism was in the 1990s. 

The legend says, for instance, that the two turtle doves represent the two “Testaments” of the Bible. Well, both religions accept the Old and New Testaments. So, nothing to hide. 

Three French Hens are supposed to represent the Holy Trinity. Again, Anglicans and Catholics both accept the Trinity.

And both religions accept the four Gospels, which is odd because it was the Catholic Church that sanctified these four Gospels out of the dozens that existed before the Second Council of Trent. Also, the original verse didn’t say “calling birds,” instead, they were “coling birds,” meaning blackbirds. What do blackbirds have to do with the Gospels?

Five golden rings? Well, considering that all the first gifts were birds, it makes more sense that this verse is referring to pheasants, not jewelry.

I can go on (eight maids milking represents the Beatitudes?). 

To lend some credibility to the urban legend, the idea may come from a 1625 era recitation called “A New Dial,” in which the leader asks a question and the student responds, thus going through 12 “doctrines.” There aren’t any ladies dancing and lords leaping, just straight, boring doctrine. But a memory-and-forfeit mechanic nonetheless.  

But the point of this post is not to debunk an urban legend, as fun as that is. What is important is that the song has endured because it applies the Memory-and-Forfeit game mechanic. 

Originally, the players would not have the text in front of them. Instead, the leader would recite a verse, and individual players would recite it back and include all the previous verses. For instance, when he (the leader would be a man) would say, “On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me five gold rings.” That player would not only repeat that verse, but also all the ones before it, “Four coling birds, three French hens…”

When a player messed up, she faced a penalty. She had to give the leader a kiss. And thus the popularity of the song. 

Not that we’re getting kisses from our learners, but can you see how such a memory game could be fun? What if your learners need to remember more than three things in sequence? Could you use a Memory-and-Forfeit type game to help them remember steps 1 through 9? You could even put it to song if you’re so gifted. 


Jonathan Peters, PhD


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