The Twelve Days of Christmas, GNU make style

Well, it’s Christmas Day in the States today, and while we’re all recovering from the gift-opening festivities, I thought this would be the perfect time for a bit of fun with GNU make. And what better subject matter than the classic Christmas carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas”? Its repetitive structure is perfect for demonstrating how to use several of GNU make’s built-in functions for iteration, selection and sorting. This simple makefile prints the complete lyrics to the song:

L01=Twelve drummers drumming,
L02=Eleven pipers piping,
L03=Ten lords-a-leaping,
L04=Nine ladies dancing,
L05=Eight maids-a-milking,
L06=Seven swans-a-swimming,
L07=Six geese-a-laying,
L08=Five golden rings,
L09=Four calling birds,
L10=Three french hens,
L11=Two turtle doves, and
L12=A partridge in a pear tree!
LINES=12 11 10 09 08 07 06 05 04 03 02 01
DAYS=twelfth eleventh tenth ninth \
eighth seventh sixth fifth \
fourth third second first
$(foreach n,$(LINES),\
$(if $(X),$(info ),$(eval X=X))\
$(info On the $(word $n,$(DAYS)) day of Christmas,)\
$(info my true love gave to me)\
$(foreach line,$(wordlist $n,12,$(sort $(LINES))),\
$(info $(L$(line)))))
all: ; @:

By count, most of the lines here just declare variables, one for each item mentioned in the song. Note how the items are ordered: the last item added is given the lowest index. That means that to construct each verse we simply enumerate every item in the list, in order, starting with the new item in each verse.

Line 18 is where the real meat of the makefile begins. Here we use GNU make’s foreach function to iterate through the verses. $(foreach) takes three arguments: a name for the iteration variable, a space-separated list of words to assign to the iteration variable in turn, and a body of text to expand repeatedly, once for each word in the list. Here, the list of words is given by LINES, which lists the starting line for each verse, in order — that is, the first verse starts from line 12, the second from line 11, etc. The text to expand on each iteration is all the text on lines 19-23 of the makefile — note the use of backslashes to continue each line to the next.

Line 19 uses several functions to print a blank line before starting the next verse, if we’ve printed a verse already: the $(if) function, which expands its second argument if its first argument is non-empty, and its third argument if its first argument is empty; the $(info) function to print a blank line; and the $(eval) function to set the flag variable. The first time this line is expanded, X does not exist, so it expands to an empty string and the $(if) picks the “else” branch. After that, X has a value, so the $(if) picks the “then” branch.

Lines 20 and 21 again use $(info) to print output — this time the prelude for the verse, like “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me”. The ordinal for each day is pulled from DAYS using the $(word) function, which extracts a specified word, given by its first argument, from the space-separated list given as its second argument. Here we’re using n, the iteration variable from our initial $(foreach) as the selector for $(word).

Line 22 uses $(foreach) again, this time to iterate through the lines in the current verse. We use line as the iteration variable. The list of words is given again by LINES except now we’re using $(sort) to reverse the order, and $(wordlist) to select a subset of the lines. $(wordlist) takes three arguments: the index of the first word in the list to select, the index of the last word to select, and a space-separated list of words to select from. The indices are one-based, not zero-based, and $(wordlist) returns all the words in the given range. The body of this $(foreach) is just line 23, which uses $(info) once more to print the current line of the current verse.

Line 25 has the last bit of funny business in this makefile. We have to include a make rule in the makefile, or GNU make will complain *** No targets. Stop. after printing the lyrics. If we simply declare a rule with no commands, like all:, GNU make will complain Nothing to be done for `all’.. Therefore, we define a rule with a single “no-op” command that uses the bash built-in “:” to do nothing, combined with GNU make’s @ prefix to suppress printing the command itself.

And that’s it! Now you’ve got some experience with several of the built-in functions in GNU make — not bad for a Christmas day lark:

  • $(eval) for dynamic interpretation of text as makefile content
  • $(foreach), for iteration
  • $(if), for conditional expansion
  • $(info), for printing output
  • $(sort), for sorting a list
  • $(word), for selecting a single word from a list
  • $(wordlist), for selecting a range of words from a list

Now — where’s that figgy pudding? Merry Christmas!


  1. Jackie Yeh says:

    This is truly interesting

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