Music Book Review: The Twelve Days of Christmas, or Grandma is Overly Generous by Alex T Smith

This month’s Music Book Review had to be a Christmas book. Last year I reviewed the 12 Engines of Christmas, a Thomas the Tank Engine version of this festive favourite song, and this year I have found another brilliant book version of this song. To be honest, we have at least 3 book versions of this song that I can immediately think of, and I can never resist singing the book to and with the children rather than just read it with them.

The Twelve Days of Christmas, or Grandma is Overly Generous is written and illustrated by Alex T Smith.

The Song

The Twelve Days of Christmas, as well as being a favourite Christmas song, is a cumulative song. What on earth are cumulative songs? They are ones that exercise your memory, each verse building on the last one. You have to remember and sing the words from the previous verse before singing the next one.

No one really knows where the song comes from originally, but many think it may be French, and have come from a children’s memory game – like the game we often try to play in our car on long journeys where you go to the shops and each person buys more and more things each turn. I say try to play it, as with a 7 and 4 year old, the game is never very successful! In any case, the first written record of The Twelve Days of Christmas comes from a children’s book called Mirth Without Mischief published in 1780.

There are many different versions of The Twelve Days of Christmas, all with slightly different words, different gifts, and some versions have just 10 days rather than 12. The most well known version, and the one I know, comes from an arrangement of a traditional English folk melody written by Frederic Austin in the early 20th Century.

When are the 12 Days of Christmas?

The 12 days of Christmas run from Christmas Day on 25 December until 6 January. In the story of the nativity, the 12 days of Christmas go from the day Jesus Christ is born, until the visit of the Three Wise Men. I am not sure what the traditions are where you are reading this, but in the UK it is traditional to make sure you have removed your Christmas decorations by the 12th night, I have been brought up to believe that it is bad luck to keep the decorations up beyond 12th night. My husband would take them down on Boxing Day if he thought he could get away with it. He can’t!

Onto the book

Every family has different traditions when it comes to Christmas, and every family has different rules and traditions when it comes to gift giving at Christmas. My family has always been very generous at Christmas, probably especially my mum. So when I saw this book with its sub heading “or Grandma is Overly Generous”, I couldn’t help but smile and had to buy it! I am very glad that I did.

This is a really lovely retelling of the story/song. In this version the gifts come from Grandma rather than a True Love, which is highly appropriate and believable for children, even if some of the gifts themselves test children’s suspension of disbelief.

The book generally sticks pretty faithfully to the words of the original song but with a few notable alterations such as 10 rhinos racing, and the gift on the 12th day, which is probably my favourite given the rest of the song. I won’t spoil the book by telling you what it is here.

The book was written and illustrated by Alex T Smith who was the official World Book Day illustrator in 2014. At the end of the book Mr Smith explains that as Frederic Austin arranged the song with the tune it is now known for in the Edwardian period of UK history, he decided to set the book (and his illustrations) in this period. He has tried to be faithful to the fashions of the time in his beautiful illustrations.

I think the details I like best in here are the postmarks for each parcel, which give just a little hint of what that day’s new gift might be before you turn over and find out for yourself.

This is one of my favourite retellings of one of my favourite Christmas songs. It is definitely written with children in mind, given that it is Grandma rather than a True Love who is giving the gifts, but I don’t think there is really an age limit either upper or lower, for enjoying this book. Especially if you sing it together rather than just read it!

At the time of writing this review the book was available on Amazon priced at £6.84 (down from £9.99).


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