Twelve Days of Christmas
A popular song at this time of year is “The twelve days of Christmas”. The song was first recorded in English in AD1780 in a book entitled “mirth without mischief”, which was aimed at children as a sort of memory game. The twelve days relate to the days after Christmas day, leading up to Epiphany on the 6th January. This is the day on which it is believed the three Magi arrived to greet the new-born baby Jesus. It would often be sung as a game of forfeits, with a new item being added with each child that sings. If a child forgot one of the objects in the series, they would have to do a forfeit..
The meaning of the gifts within the song has caused some debate. The five gold rings were often assumed to be rings worn on the finger as seen in illustrations from that era (see right). However, an alternative was suggested by William Stuart Baring-Gould (1962, 197) who believed it referred to five “ringed pheasants”, as all other gifts up until that point had been birds. Several of the other items appear to have changed throughout history, yet golden finger-rings seem to have persisted. probably because the desire for gold jewellery far outweighed the desire for game birds.
The five gold rings below (PAS-833958) are dated to the Late Bronze Age (1150-750BC). They are all of a similar shape, though they vary in size and style. The larger two are believed to be neck rings, whilst the smaller examples are likely to be bracelets. They were found within a ceramic vessel, suggesting the objects had been deposited intentionally. Much like the rings in the song, these five gold rings were possibly given as a gift to the Gods (though not necessarily on the 5th day of Christmas). There is a lot of debate about why objects were intentionally buried in the past, with each explanation being as likely as the next. As more and more hoards are being uncovered and making their way into museum collections, we are learning a great deal about these fascinating practices in the past.
These objects fell under the Treasure Act 1996 and have subsequently been acquired by the British Museum. The British Museum currently has an exhibition on Prehistoric and Roman hoards in room 69a.
Reference: Baring-Gould, W. S. and Baring-Gould, C. 1962. The Annotated Mother Goose. New York: Bramhall House.