“The Twelve Days of Christmas” has always been a favorite Christmas carol for me ever since I heard the Ray Conniff Singers version (originally from 1962) on my parents’ record player as a child. Then John Denver and the Muppets did a fun version in 1979 that just missed being in the ’80s. The versions we are going to celebrate here are the parodies created by Bob & Doug McKenzie from SCTV in 1981 and by the Bob Rivers Comedy Corp from 1987.
But first, a little background on “The Twelve Days of Christmas” song:
The song, first published as a chant or rhyme in England in 1780 without music, is thought to be French in origin. The standard tune now associated with the song is derived from a 1909 arrangement of the traditional folk melody by English composer Frederic Austin, who first introduced the now familiar prolongation of the verse “five gold rings”. The precise origin of the song is unknown, but some agree that it was first published either as a children’s song or a Christmas carol in the late 18th or mid-19th century. Edward Phinney, a professor of classics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, put the first publication at 1868, but it also shows up, in slightly altered forms, in Mirth without Mischief, which was published around 1780, and James Orchard Halliwell’s The Nursery Rhymes of England, which was published in 1842. Lots of folks who’ve looked into the subject, including professor Phinney, say the song probably arose as a kids’ memory and counting game, wherein groups of children would take turns singing each lyric around in a circle. Phinney has also commented on the song’s inspiration saying, “If you think of all the things being presented, they’re all gifts from a lover to a woman. Some of them are rather impossible to give, like eight maids a-milking and nine ladies dancing [but you could hire them temporarily]. All those ladies and dancing and pipers and drums imply this is a wedding.” If you ask me, I think the person who wrote it was also a little obsessed with birds.
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” has always made for an easy vehicle for parodies. Bob and Doug McKenzie were characters played by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas during a sketch called “Great White North” on SCTV. The sketch, which revolved around Canadian stereotypes, was first introduced on a September 19, 1980 episode. Moranis and Thomas really embodied these characters and the results were often quite hilarious. The sketch and characters became so popular that they released a comedy album in 1981 and later a feature film, Strange Brew, in 1983. The album, titled The Great White North, was quite successful eventually going platinum and peaking at #8 on the U.S. Billboard 200 album chart while hitting #1 on the Canadian album chart for six weeks in 1982. The Great White North included Bob & Doug’s version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” which replaced all of the traditional true love’s gifts with what they considered to be the stereotypical Canadian equivalents.
The first day begins with “a beer” then “a beer, in a tree” and then really only includes eight items because the brothers run out of beer, complain about the length of the song and just skip to day twelve. The eight items they do mention are: 8 comic books, 7 packs of smokes, 6 packs of two-four (case of beer with 24 bottles or cans), 5 golden toques (stocking caps), 4 pounds of back bacon (known in the U.S. as Canadian bacon ), 3 French toasts, 2 turtlenecks, and a beer in a tree. There is some dialogue before and after the song which includes plenty of “take off”, “eh”, “hose head” and the like. If you are not entertained by Strange Brew and the McKenzie brothers like I am, this song may not be for you (take off hoser). I don’t believe there is any original footage of the brothers performing this song, but here is an animated video created more recently of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” by Bob & Doug McKenzie…
Bob Rivers was a radio personality who became known for writing/producing novelty and parody songs which he referred to as “twisted tunes”. In 1987, Rivers released Twisted Christmas, which was his first of several Christmas-themed parody/comedy albums to come, and was specifically commissioned due to the popularity of one particular parody. “The Twelve Pains Of Christmas” originally went on the air during Rivers’ morning radio show on WAAF (Worcester, Massachusetts) in 1986 and received such a great reaction that a record label took notice. The song features mostly friends and family (those are his actual kids in parts) as well as real singers for the choir. Many of the pains he came up with back in 1986 are still relevant over 35 years later. Here is the list that Rivers used:
Finding a Christmas tree
Rigging up the lights
Sending Christmas cards
Five months of bills
Facing the in-laws
Finding parking spaces
Batteries Not Included
Stale TV specials
Singing Christmas carols
The Twisted Christmas album was eventually certified gold for selling over 500,000 copies driven by the popularity of “The Twelve Pains of Christmas”. Here is a music video to enjoy “The Twelve Pains of Christmas” by the Bob Rivers Comedy Corp…
Every year since 1984, a group of economists at PNC Wealth Management have figured out how much it would cost to actually buy all the things on the normal “Twelve Days of Christmas” list (not Bob & Doug’s). The so-called Christmas Price Index indicates inflation and the increasing costs of certain goods. This year (2021), for instance, if you were really going to buy everything on that list in the multiples listed in the song it would run you $179,454.19 (for 364 presents) with the twelfth day costing $41,205.58 all by itself. Compare that to 2019 which was $38,993.59, 1990 which was $23,366.09 and 1984 (when they started calculating) which was $20,069.58. I didn’t realize swans were so expensive, almost $2000 a piece, and $13,125 for all seven a-swimming is the most expensive item on the list!
The price has not-surprisingly more than doubled in 37 years. Back to the parody songs, I have always enjoyed the McKenzie brothers so I have always enjoyed their version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (which I hope doesn’t make me a hoser). As for “The Twelve Pains of Christmas”, I didn’t fully appreciate this gem until it was performed in a holiday musical show that my daughter performed in, but now it makes me chuckle every time I hear it. And it surely doesn’t hurt that they both came from the great decade of the ’80s.
As a bonus, here is one of my very favorite versions of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. It isn’t really a parody, but maybe considered more novelty/comical, and is not from the ’80s. But it provides a tremendous ’80s surprise connection about 2/3 through the song which makes me smile every time I hear it. Straight No Chaser is a men’s a cappella group that originated in 1996 at Indiana University. In April 2006, a video recording of the group’s live performance of “The 12 Days of Christmas”, filmed on December 7, 1998 at the Musical Arts Center in Bloomington, Indiana, was posted on YouTube (almost eight years later). It became a viral sensation and now has nearly 25 million views. They went on to receive a record contract, released albums including 2008’s very popular Holiday Spirits and went on tours. They have recorded a studio version of this now, but here is the original live performance that started it all (including the awesome ’80s connection), please enjoy “The 12 Days of Christmas” by Straight No Chaser…