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A Taxing Review of the Twelve Days of Christmas

8 min readBy: Jared Walczak

There’s nothing practical about the gifts from the Twelve Days of Christmas—just how often do you really need lords a-leaping? But have you ever considered the taxA tax is a mandatory payment or charge collected by local, state, and national governments from individuals or businesses to cover the costs of general government services, goods, and activities. implications? (No. I realize that the answer is no.) Let’s remedy that by taking a look at the list, in declining order:

Twelve Drummers Drumming

In India, drummers play an important role in raising tax revenue. I’m not talking about the entertainment tax, though there is one, but rather the role of drummers in tax enforcement. In some cases, local government officials now dispatch drum bands to the businesses of those in arrears on their taxes in an attempt to shame the owners into payment. And it works: in Mumbai, collections rose 20 percent after the drummers were deployed. So perhaps with the twelve drummers drumming, it’s not so much a question of how much you owe on the drummers but how much you owed to get the drummers’ attention in the first place.

Eleven Pipers Piping

You’re off to hear a holiday woodwind ensemble, but you’re vexed by the question of whether your concert ticket is subject to sales taxA sales tax is levied on retail sales of goods and services and, ideally, should apply to all final consumption with few exemptions. Many governments exempt goods like groceries; base broadening, such as including groceries, could keep rates lower. A sales tax should exempt business-to-business transactions which, when taxed, cause tax pyramiding. . The answer: it depends. In some states, concerts are considered educational events and therefore potentially exempt from the sales tax. The Wisconsin Supreme Court, however, isn’t convinced. The court ruled, in Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Inc. v. Wisconsin Department of Revenue, that an orchestral performance is primarily a form of entertainment, not education, making admissions subject to the state sales tax. You might want to go elsewhere to listen to those eleven pipers.

Ten Lords A-Leaping

The peerages must be in really bad shape if the lords are leaping to make a quick buck (Lords of Misrule of their own estates, perhaps), but in Nevada under the state’s old Live Entertainment Tax, you might have been in luck. The 10 percent tax was not imposed if the entertainment in question was provided by employees who only occasionally served as entertainers, so I suppose it all depends on your view of how entertaining members of the Lords are as a rule. Under the old tax, live music was subject to the tax as well, but patrons seated too far away to hear it well had their seats exempted, and the tax didn’t apply if the performers roamed the audience while singing. It was all just about as crazy as booking a peer of the realm for a spot of entertainment.

Nine Ladies Dancing

These nine ladies were likely carolers, meaning that they performed a “carole,” a kind of circle dance that originated in pagan festivals but later became associated with medieval mystery plays, which were dramatizations of the “mystery of faith” (telling the story of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and future return, and often of the entire Bible) in word, song, and dance. One early partially surviving sequence, the Coventry Mystery Plays, gave us the familiar Coventry Carol. Typically, each play in the cycle was sponsored by a different guild (in the York Plays, for instance, the shipbuilders covered Noah’s ark, while the goldsmiths took responsibility for the adoration of the Magi).

These guilds originally came into being largely as a response to arbitrary taxation in a time when feudal lords had nearly unfettered authority to levy taxes on trade within their fiefs. Craft guilds united craftsmen for the purpose of a sort of collective bargaining with the lord over taxes, with each member of the guild responsible for an established share of the tax. Not that the guilds ever had nine ladies dancing in their plays; while women performed in pagan caroles, the female roles all went to men by the time of the mystery plays.

Eight Maids A-Milking

Let’s talk about the preferential treatment of dairy cattle in the tax code, shall we? In a county in Alberta, Canada, ranchers feuded with local government over a $3 per head taxA head tax, also known as a poll tax or capitation, is a flat or uniform tax levied equally on every taxpayer. Unlike an income tax, it is a fixed amount and not based on how much one earns, nor does it change based on any taxpayer circumstance or action. on large beef cattle operations. Dairy cattle, however, were exempt. It’s the same story in Virginia, where handlers owe 25 cents per head of cattle sold, unless it’s a dairy cow going back to a farm for milk production. Apparently everyone loves milk, except perhaps the maids you’re anachronistically forcing into service on your dairy farm.

Seven Swans A-Swimming

Swans are notoriously territorial, especially if you have nesting pairs, so if you expect seven swans to swim peacefully, you need an awfully big lake. And large lakes typically mean high property tax assessments, leading to a bill you might regret if your investments are ever wiped out by a “black swan” event.

Six Geese A-Laying

Are these wild geese? Because if so, you might just qualify for Texas’s wildlife tax exemption. To qualify, though, your land has to be used for at least three of seven habitat management activities including habitat control, predator management, and shelter or supplemental food provision, so unless you’ve found the goose that lays the golden egg, it’s probably not worth the outlay. Also of note, a 2014 tax bill would have extended bonus depreciationBonus depreciation allows firms to deduct a larger portion of certain “short-lived” investments in new or improved technology, equipment, or buildings in the first year. Allowing businesses to write off more investments partially alleviates a bias in the tax code and incentivizes companies to invest more, which, in the long run, raises worker productivity, boosts wages, and creates more jobs. to capital investments in fruit that grows on trees, but not to fruit that grows on bushes—which is good news if you subscribe to the (rare) medieval view that a certain species of goose was actually a fruit that grew on trees.

Five Gold(en) Rings

In 1991, the U.S. adopted a 10 percent luxury tax on a range of luxury goods, including jewelry priced in excess of $10,000. After disappointing revenues and a major hit to certain industries, Congress reversed itself two years later, scrapping all but the tax on cars valued in excess of $30,000 (later repealed as well). Some states, however, continue to impose their own luxury taxes. Major League Baseball also imposes a “luxury tax”—not a real tax, of course, inasmuch as it isn’t levied by a government—on payroll above league guidelines, in lieu of imposing a hard salary cap.

So, potentially, a team might face two luxury taxes in a given year: first on their roster, and then on their World Series rings. They probably wouldn’t mind, though, under the circumstances. (Oh, by the way: it’s quite possible that the five gold rings are actually ring-necked pheasants, which were favored among the upper classes due to their legendary association with Jason and the Argonauts, who introduced pheasants to the West on their return voyage with the Golden Fleece. That would mean that days one through seven are all about birds, which, let’s face it, is a lot of birds.)

Four Calling Birds

We need to address a misconception here. The song isn’t actually speaking of “calling” birds, but “colly birds,” which is to say blackbirds (really a kind of thrush). These birds, though not as regal as pheasants—you wouldn’t swear a “bird oath” over a mere colly bird—were consumed as a delicacy (remember the blackbirds baked in a pie?), so check to see if your jurisdiction imposes a meals tax.

Three French Hens

Overdoing it a bit on the birds, aren’t we? The thing is, these French hens might actually be roosters, since the Latin word for France (Gaul, from Gallia) is very close to the word for rooster. Three roosters on a Christian holiday? Well, one did crow thrice when Jesus was led away, according to the gospel accounts, so it might prefigure the crucifixion. And if these are indeed mistaken roosters, it’s not the only time a rooster and a location have been conflated.

The historian Procopius claimed that the last emperor of the western Roman Empire, told by a eunuch that Rome had fallen, wept bitterly, thinking the messenger was informing him of the death of his prize rooster of that name, but cheered up when he learned that it was only the city that had perished. Incidentally, it has often been argued that ruinous taxation precipitated the final collapse of the Western Empire.

Two Turtle Doves

More birds, probably symbolizing fertility or love or maybe just the poet’s maddening obsession with birds. Doves, according to lore, mate for life (and there’s a lot of bird lore; check out the Book of Saint Albans!), making them a fitting symbol of marriage. A less romantic symbol of marriage is the extra income tax married couples owe at the federal level and in states which, by failing to double bracket widths for joint filers, impose a “marriage penaltyA marriage penalty is when a household’s overall tax bill increases due to a couple marrying and filing taxes jointly. A marriage penalty typically occurs when two individuals with similar incomes marry; this is true for both high- and low-income couples. .”

And a Partridge in a Pear Tree

I’m tired of birds, so let’s talk about the pear tree. In 1944, the Soviet Union burdened its already downtrodden farmers with a punitive tax on fruit trees. As a result, weary farmers felled their trees to avoid paying the tax. Only later would the Soviets learn, in the words of Nikita Khrushchev, that economics is a subject that does not greatly respect one’s wishes.

But then, there may never have been a pear tree to begin with. According to one theory, the original lyrics were “a partridge, une perdrix,” repeating the phrase “a partridge” in French for some unknown reason. Over time, this morphed into the mondegreen “in a pear tree.” (What’s a mondegreen, you ask? It’s the word for misheard lyrics, originating in a misrepresentation of the line “laid him on the green” as “Lady Mondegreen” in the Scottish ballad “The Bonnie Earl o’ Moray.”)

One more thing: we as a society have the twelve days of Christmas all wrong, and I don’t just mean in our failure to associate them with tax policy. The twelve days are not a countdown to Christmas Day, but rather from it. Christmas Day is actually the first day of Christmastide or Twelvetide, a twelve-day season culminating in the straightforwardly-named Twelfth Night (think Shakespeare) on the eve of Epiphany. So if you haven’t ordered those colly birds for your true love’s Twelfth Night pie yet, don’t worry, there’s still plenty of time!

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