The Story Behind: The Twelve Days of Christmas

I remember trying to learn all the verses of the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” as a child and always getting confused by all the birds and the different people. Which came first, the swans or the geese? Who danced or who piped or who drummed and what was their order? I could only sing “five golden rings” with any confidence. I would always have to have the lyrics in front of me or I would get all mixed up and forget which number I was supposed to be singing about. I also remember wondering why the man was buying such weird gifts for his girlfriend. Who would want a bunch of birds for Christmas and where would all those people live? Who knew that the song was a subversive ditty that was really teaching about the Catholic faith in a time when people were being killed for following a different religion than the official one? So here’s the real story behind the song.

In sixteenth century England, Catholics were forbidden by law to practice their faith. The only “true” religion at that time was The Church of England. If a person was caught speaking or writing about the Catholic faith, he or she would be arrested. If the violation was severe enough, you would be executed. The law included children as well as adults. So how could a parent or priest teach the children about their religion? By using a secret code that would seem to be nonsense to those who didn’t know the hidden meaning, Catholics could teach their religion while abiding by the rules.

So what did the twelve days of Christmas really mean?

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree.

The partridge in the pear tree represented courage and devotion. As the mother partridge would sacrifice her own life to draw predators away from her chicks, so did Christ do for mankind. If you add the imagery of the pear tree representing the cross, the first gift represented the ultimate gift given by the babe born on Christmas Day.

On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, two turtledoves and a partridge …

The second gift stood for the New and Old Testaments of the Bible. Doves were also symbols of truth and peace, which re-emphasized the tie of Christ and Christmas.

On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me three French hens, two…

In the sixteenth century, French hens were a luxury item. If they were served at a banquet, it truly was a meal fit for a king. The three hens represented the gifts brought to the babe by the wise men.

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, four calling birds, and three …

The four calling birds represented the authors of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, five golden rings.

The five rings stood for the five Old Testament books known as the “law of Moses” or the Torah. They reminded the singer that a Savior would come to offer salvation and a path to God.

On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, six geese a laying, five…

As the Lord made the world in six days, geese, a traditional symbol for new life and creation, became the image of God creating the world out of the void.

On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, seven swans a swimming, six…

Paul wrote of the “gifts of the Holy Spirit” in Romans 12:6-8. These gifts – prophesy, service, teaching, encouraging, giving, leadership, and mercy – were linked to swans, very graceful and beautiful birds. If you walked with God, the gifts of the Spirit would move with you as serenely as the swan swam on a pond.

On the eight day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, eight maids a milking, seven…

The eight maids represented the common man. In England, the lowest jobs were held by those who labored with cattle or in a barn. For a female servant to be a milkmaid indicated what little worth she was for her master. Yet Christ served all people. Eight also represented the beatitudes listed in Matthew 5:3-10 – blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemaker, and the righteous.

On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, nine ladies dancing, and eight…

The dancers represented the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness , faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, ten lords a-leaping, and nine…

The ten lords symbolized the Ten Commandments. Since a lord was supposed to be a just and honorable man – the final voice of law in his domain – he was a worthy representative of the ten laws God gave man through Moses.

On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, eleven pipers piping, and ten …

The eleven pipers represented the eleven apostles who took the message of God and spread it throughout the world.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, twelve drummers drumming, and eleven…

The final gift covered the dozen elements of the Apostle’s Creed, a confessional taught to every Catholic. The drum symbolized the pace or rhythm of the creed as each believer walked with the Lord.

By the time it was no longer a crime to practice the Catholic faith in England, the song had taken on a life of its own. No one seemed to care that this seemingly shallow song had anything to do with the birth and life of the Savior. Perhaps the fun aspect of the song that masked the original intent is why “The Twelve Days of Christmas” survived. And now you know the story behind the song.

If you look in the Library’s catalog, you will see there are many books and movies based on the song of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” There are also different formats too, from regular books to ebooks and audiobooks.  Have a Merry Christmas!

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