Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs


News Release

Contact: Joe King, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-4299

November 26, 2008

‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’
named 2008 Carol of the Year

DeKalb, Ill. — A song that has struck fear into the heart of every caroler who ever forgot his or her song book, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” has been selected as the Carol of the Year for 2008.

Even William Studwell, acknowledged by many as the nation’s foremost authority on Christmas carols, freely admits that he cannot remember the dozen gifts that are at the heart of the song.

“There are two reasons,” says Studwell, a professor emeritus at Northern Illinois University, where he worked as a librarian. “First, there are many different versions, so it’s hard to say which is definitive. Second, it’s just not one of my favorite songs.”

Despite his personal feelings, Studwell chose the song as Carol of the Year (now in its 23rd year) due to its tremendous popularity and longevity.

Like many older carols, the origins of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” are vague. Some say it was written in France, but Studwell is firmly in the camp of those who trace its roots to England. It was most likely written, he believes, during the period of history known as the Restoration, a brief interlude from about 1660 to 1730, between the Puritan Revolution and the rise of Methodism. It was a period of lightheartedness (relative to the eras it separated, anyway) which would have allowed for the rise of such a frivolous song, Studwell says.

The acclaimed researcher puts little stock in the theory that the carol originated as a code developed by English Catholics to secretly teach their children catechism. The idea was first set forth by the Rev. Harold Stockert in 1969 and has been revived on the Internet in recent years. 

Studwell rejects that notion for several reasons. First, Catholics of that era were not terribly persecuted, he says, so there would have been little need for their teachings to have been secretive. Also, the breezy, bouncy nature of the tune hardly fits with the character of the church at that time. Finally, neither Studwell , nor any other reputable researcher, has never found a definitive explanation of what each of the 12 gifts in the song would have correlated to in the Catholic catechism.

The folk song made its first official appearance in a songbook around 1780 and has been a staple of just about every caroling party ever since. It also has been a popular target for parody artists, with dozens of versions created. They range from at least one by Disney (which substitutes onion rings for golden rings, a popular twist) to another by a pair of Canadian comedians masquerading as Bob and Doug MacKenzie (they substitute a beer for the partridge and end up shortening the song so they can drink).

While something of a purist about Christmas music, Studwell is not put off by the parodies. He considers “The Twelve Days of Christmas” to be the holiday equivalent of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” pointing out that both have a repetitive tune and lyrics that rely heavily on barnyard fowl. How could such a song become a perennial favorite? Studwell sums it up in a single word: Christmas.

“Christmas has preserved lots of mediocre music,” he says. “Just look at ‘All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth,’ which is silly; or ‘Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,’ which is an abomination. If they weren’t linked to Christmas we never would have heard of them, but every holiday season you hear them on the radio.”

Studwell, 72, began researching Christmas carols in 1972 when he created a pamphlet about “Oh Holy Night” as a gift for a family member. Since then, he has researched and written handbooks, dictionaries, essays and booklets on the topic, delving into the background of hundreds of carols. He has conducted more than 500 media interviews on the topic for newspapers, magazines, radio and television and has served as an adviser to several projects compiling recordings and lyrics of carols.

He estimates that he has devoted more than 6,000 hours of his life to studying and writing about Christmas carols. At the height of his research, he immersed himself in collections at libraries across the country and had a room full of tables stacked high with more than 400 reference volumes from around the globe.

He also champions several other musical genres that he believes are under-appreciated and has written extensively n college fight songs, state songs, patriotic music and circus music, becoming a nationally recognized expert in each. He recently began writing fiction. In all, he has authored more than 50 books, with several set for publication in the months and years ahead.

Studwell now resides in Bloomington, Ind. He can be reached by telephone at (812) 330-1996.

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