The Dilly Song is part of a family of “number songs” that includes “Green Grow the Rushes Oh” and “In those Twelve Days”. Guessing at the symbolism of the lyrics has entertained generations of folklorists. Some have traced it back to a chant used in the Hebrew Passover “Echod mi Yodea”. The Breton Celtic Revivalist, Villemarque, saw it as a Druidic chant used to teach disciples. The extent to which singers appreciated the symbolism probably depends upon the social background of the singer and the context. One suspects that the Cornish miners at Lake Superior in 1891 meant something quite different by “Nine is the moonshine, bright and clear” from their contemporaries at a Chapel in Helston singing “Nine, the moon shines bright and clear”!
A version of the song from Cornwall appears in “Notes and Queries” 1854 submitted by “C.M.G.” as sung by the Waites at Christmas period in the neighbourhood of Falmouth:
- “Twelve is twelve as goes to hell,
- Eleven is eleven as goes to heaven,
- Ten is the Ten Commandments,
- Nine is nine so bright to shine,
- Eight is the gable angels,
- Seven is the seven stars of the sky,
- And six is the six bold waiters,
- Five is the flamboys under the bough,
- And four is the Gospel preachers;
- Three of them is thrivers (shrivers?),
- Two of them is lilywhite babes and clothed all in green oh!
- And One is One, and all alone, and ever more shall be so.”
Discussion of the meaning of the lyrics and a number of different versions appeared on the columns of the Western Morning News in 1888. This encouraged Rev Sabine Baring Gould to include the Dilly Song in his folk song collection Songs and Ballads of the West. Baring Gould chose to draw together a composite of the least religious lyrics for publication:
What Will you sing me? I will Sing you one O! What is your one O?
- One of them is all alone, and ever more will be so.
- Two of them are lily-white babes, dressed all in Green O!
- Three of them are strangers, o’er the wide world they are rangers.
- Four it is the Dilly Hour, when blooms the gilly flower.
- Five it is the Dilly Bird, that’s never seen but heard O!
- Six the ferryman in the boat, that doth on the river float.
- Seven it is the crown of Heaven, the shining stars be seven O!
- Eight is the morning break, when all the world’s awake, O!
- Nine it is the pale moonshine, the pale moonlight is nine, O!
- Ten forbids all kind of sin, and ten again begin, O!
Baring Gould encouraged “concert parties” to perform the songs he collected and noted that “When a party of amateurs performed some of these “Songs of the West” in Cornwall, 1890, the Dilly Song always provoked laughter among the good folk at the back of the halls; this puzzled the performers, till they enquired into the reason of the laughter, and learned that folk laughed because it was their familiar chapel hymn.”
The Dilly Song remained part of Cornish singing tradition in the 20th Century and appears in the lists of songs popular with the Old Cornwall Societies. In 1920 / 1921 it again featured in the correspondence pages of the Western Morning News with meanings discussed and different versions submitted. Cornish scholar, Henry Jenner, joined the discussion with both Latin and Hebrew versions and the suggestion that it was originally introduced to Cornwall by the Jewish community living in the west from the Talmud. This probably says as much about Henry Jenner’s involvement with classical languages as it does about the origins of the Dilly Song. It does however seem that the Cornish version of this song was carried on a wave of revival of interest in Carols in the West and gradually travelled east. There was a large migration of Cornish miners to the Tamar Valley and West Dartmoor for a booming Copper industry a generation before Baring Gould started his folk song collecting in the area and the Dilly Song clearly travelled with them.
Writing in the Old Cornwall Journal in 1959, Miss J Kelynack connects the Dilly Carol to baking a special bun “As far back as I can remember, I with all the other members of our family had a special bun, made in the shape of a bird, to eat on Christmas Eve. My mother and her brothers, and their parents, uncles and aunts had always done the same. My great-grandparents, when the Christmas saffron cake was being made, used to pick out pieces of the dough, make them into this bird-shape and bake them. Then each member of the family was given one and the Dilly Carol was sung.” 
The terms “Dilly Song”, “Dilly Hour” and “Dilly Bird” do not make an appearance in the classic 19th Century folklore collections of people like Margaret Courtney, Robert Hunt or William Bottrell and their significance remains intriguing. Baring Gould suggested that the word came from the Welsh “dillyn” meaning a jewel (also dilladau/dillynion meaning a dear one). The Cornish for jewel is “tegen”, however, and continued to be used in Cornish dialect in the 19th century so it is difficult to see why “dillyn” would have been borrowed from the Welsh.
Just as our predecessors used the letters pages of newspapers to explore possible meanings for the Dilly Carol, I placed a query on the facebook page of Lien Gwerin: the journal of Cornish Folklore. Two other songs featuring “dilly” were flagged up, “Lavender Blue Dilly Dilly” and “My Old Man Said Follow the Van and Don’t Dilly Dally on the way”. The first is a traditional song with a provenance going back several hundred years and “Dilly Dilly” is just a “Diddle Diddle” without any meaning. The second is a music hall song from 1919 written by Charles Collins and Fred W. Leigh with reference to working class life in London at the time. Dilly Dally is used here to mean time waste. Thomas’s Randigal Rhymes and Glosssary of Cornish words 1895 comes up with “Dilly: “Dilly-dallying: Trifling, hesitating, shilly-shallying (he also comes up with “Dilly : light wagon” which would be quite a different context).
The Dilly Song as a nonsense song and / or time-wasting kind of makes sense but my imagination continues to work on what “the Dilly Bird, that’s never seen but heard” would look like.
12th Night 2022
 L.R.C. Yoffie, Songs of the “Twelve Numbers” and the Hebrew Chant of “Echod mi Yodea”,
The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 62, No. 246 (Oct. – Dec, 1949), pp. 382-411. Explores some of the origin theories. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/536580
 Hersart de la Villemarque, Barzaz-Breiz-Chants Populaires de la Bretagne (4th ed.; Paris, 1846), I, I-28
 William Wells Newell, Journal of American Folklore, Vol 4,198, pp215 -220 citing Bizarre Notes and Queries,” Manchester, New Hampshire, vol. vi. No. 2, 1889, p. 248
 Notes and Queries, Ser. 1i, Vol. 9 (April 8, 1854) 325
 S. Baring Gould & H. Fleetwood Sheppard, Songs and Ballads of the West, (London, Methuen & Co,1891) song no.78
 S Baring Gould & H Fleetwood Sheppard ibid – notes on songs
 Western Morning News – 2nd and 12th September 1921:
 Newlyn Christmas Customs J Kelynack Old Cornwall 1959 vol 5 no.10 p417
 Ibid Phil Knight
 Ibid Pam Watson
 Ibid Dee Brotherton – Thomas, Joseph. Randigal Rhymes and a Glossary of Cornish Words. Penzance: Rodda, 1895.p80