The Twelve Days of Christmas


The Twelve Days of Christmas has been a favorite Christmas carol with the girls this year. I’ve always enjoyed the song myself, and have begun to wonder what it’s origins were.

The history of the actual twelve days of Christmas also fascinated me, since Dan’s family always observed Epiphany to some degree or another. Dan and I hate the fact that these days, Christmas seems to begin at sundown on Thanksgiving, and end on the morning of December 26th, with all the smoothness of a car wreck. So, we have always tended to drag our feet about when we decorate and un-decorate, etc. Now that Sophie’s birthday is on Epiphany, we have one more reason to be interested in the observance of the 12 days of Christmas.

Wikipedia has a brief but interesting History of the Twelve Days of Christmas, if you’re interested in reading any more about it.

But, this post is about the actual song – The Twelve Days of Christmas.

Apparently, during a time of repression (beginning in the 16th century) of the Roman Catholic religion in England, the Catholics devised ways of passing on their faith “under cover” as it were.

The Twelve Days of Christmas was a means of teaching the tenets of their religion to their children in a way unrecognizable to the English authorities.

The true love which is spoken of in the song, is representative of God’s true love.

The partridge represents the self sacrifice which Christ demonstrated, when he gave himself for the world. A mother partridge will lure predators away from her chicks, giving of herself, even unto death, in order to save her offspring.

The pear tree symbolizes the wooden cross upon which Jesus died.

The two turtle doves symbolize the Old and New Testament, and, according to some, truth and peace.

There’s a bit of controversy over what the three French hens stand for. Since French hens were known to be the food of Kings in 16th century England, the theory that makes the most sense to me is that they represent the costly gifts brought by the wise men to the newborn baby Jesus. Another theory is that they represent the virtues of faith, hope and love.

The four calling birds symbolize the authors of the four Gospels.

The five golden rings are the first five books of the Bible.

The six geese a-laying represent the six days in which God created the world.

Seven swans a-swimming represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: prophesy, service, teaching, encouraging, giving, leadership and mercy. The gracefulness of the swan was meant to bring to mind the gracefulness of a life filled with these virtues.

Apparently, milk maids were pretty low on the totem pole in 16th century England. The gift of eight maids a-milking represents Jesus’ love for the poor folk, according to one source – or possibly the concept of the “meek shall inherit the earth” (that’s my thought). Another theory is that the eight maids might represent the eight beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount.

The nine ladies dancing were the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit found in Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.

The ten lords a-leaping was to serve as a reminder of the Ten Commandments.

The eleven pipers piping refers to the eleven apostles who remained faithful and spread the Good News.

The twelve drummers drumming were the twelve tenets of the Catholic faith laid out in the prayer, The Apostles’ Creed: belief in God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, that Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, made man, crucified, died and arose on the third day, that he sits at the right hand of the father and will come again, the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting.

So, that’s what some people claim is the history of the song…

Snopes (darn them) says it’s all a nice sounding myth, and the song really is a silly secular ditty, designed to add festivity to the season through lyrics about meaningless gifts and strange figures dancing through one’s imagination.

As Snopes points out, it would seem strange for the Anglican church to object to any of the supposed secret messages contained in this song, as the things mentioned here are basic articles of faith common to both the Catholics and the Protestants.

So, what to believe? I guess you can take your pick.


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