Christians who are not part of liturgical church traditions have no understanding of the enormous importance of the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Contrary to modern belief, these are not the twelve days before Christmas, but in the Western Church are the twelve days from Christmas until the beginning of Epiphany, January 6 (the twelve days count from December 25 until January 5). The popular song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a song of Christian instruction with hidden references to the basic teachings of the Faith.
During the period from 1558 to 1829 in England, Catholics were prohibited by law from practicing their faith publicly or privately. It was a crime to be a Catholic. Within this setting and background, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was composed as one of the “catechism songs” to help young Catholics learn the tenets of their faith. It was a mnemonic device—a memory aid—at a time when to be caught with anything in writing indicating adherence to the Catholic faith could not only get you imprisoned but severely punished. Those outside the church saw it as a meaningless tune with meaningless lyrics.
The “true love” mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The “me” who receives the presents refers to every baptized believer who is part of the Christian Faith. Thus, “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me” takes on new meaning. Each of the “days” represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn. Each of the other symbols is significant.
A Partridge in a Pear Tree
The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, whose birthday we celebrate on December 25, the first day of Christmas. In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge that feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings, recalling the expression of Christ’s sadness over the fate of Jerusalem: “Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered you under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but you would not have it so…”
Two Turtle Doves
The two turtle doves are symbolic of the Old and New Testaments, which together bear witness to God’s self-revelation in history and His creation of a people to tell His to the world.
Three French Hens
The three French hens represent the Three Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope, and Love.
Four Calling Birds
The four calling birds represent the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which proclaim the Good News of God’s reconciliation of the world to Himself in Jesus Christ.
Five Golden Rings
The give golden rings are illustrating the five books of Moses, also called the five books of the Law, otherwise known as the first five books of the Old Testament or the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, which give the history of humanity’s sinful failure and God’s response of grace in the creation of a people to be a light to the world.
Six Geese A-laying
The geese represent the six days of creation that establish God as Creator and Sustainer of the world.
Seven Swans A-swimming
The seven swans symbolize the gifts of the Holy Spirit: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion; Or, uniquely Catholic, the seven sacraments: General, Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist (gratitude, praise, communion), Reconciliation, Anointing of Sick, Holy Orders (Priest, Bishop, Cardinal…).
Eight Maids A-milking
The eight maids correspond to the Beatitudes: Blessed are (1) the poor in spirit, (2) those who mourn, (3) the meek, (4) those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, (5) the merciful, (6) the pure in heart, (7) the peacemakers, (8) those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
Nine Ladies Dancing
The nine ladies dancing reflect the joy one finds in bearing the Fruit of the Holy Spirit: (1) love, (2) joy, (3) peace, (4) patience, (5) kindness, (6) generosity, (7) faithfulness, (8) gentleness, and (9) self-control.
Ten Lords A-leaping
The ten lords symbolize the Ten Commandments: (1) You shall have no other gods before me; (2) Do not make an idol; (3) Do not take God’s name in vain; (4) Remember the Sabbath Day; (5) Honor your father and mother; (6) Do not murder; (7) Do not commit adultery; (8) Do not steal; (9) Do not bear false witness; (10) Do not covet.
Eleven Pipers Piping
The eleven pipers illustrate the Faithful Apostles: (1) Simon Peter, (2) Andrew, (3) James, (4) John, (5) Philip, (6) Bartholomew, (7) Matthew, (8) Thomas, (9) James bar Alphaeus, (10) Simon the Zealot, (11) Judas bar James. The list does not include the twelfth disciple, Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus to the Romans.
Twelve Drummers Drumming
The twelve drummers reflect the points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed: (1) I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. (2) I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord. (3) He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. (4) He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into the grave. (5) On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. (6) He will come again to judge the living and the dead. (7) I believe in the Holy Spirit, (8) the holy catholic (universal) Church, (9) the communion of saints, (10) the forgiveness of sins, (11) the resurrection of the body, (12) and life everlasting.
Now this is the commandment, and these are the statutes and judgments which the Lord your God has commanded to teach you… You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words…you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates…lest you forget the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.
*Note: There are as many claims that this symbolism is factual as there are claims that it is myth. If you are interested in the “myth” history, read http://www.neatorama.com/2014/12/15/The-Myth-of-the-12-Days-of-Christmas/
(c) East of Bethlehem, C. Yvonne Karl, Brentwood Press, 2003. Chapter 15.
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