Most of us are familiar with the Christmas Song “The Twelve days of Christmas.” What we are not commonly aware of is the meaning behind the interesting, but somewhat strange, lyrics. The Twelve days of Christmas refers to the 12 days that are between the celebration of Jesus’ birthday on the 25th of December and the celebration of Epiphany on the 6th of January. There is no clear evidence to prove what the song means, but there are some popular theories to explain the lyrics.
Theories behind the meaning of “The 12 of days of Christmas”
The most common theory of why the song “The Twelve days of Christmas” was written dates back to a time when it was illegal to to practice the Catholic faith in England (1558- 1829). England was an Anglican country and if a person was caught in possession of Catholic religious material or practicing the Catholic faith they would be severely punished. The song is said to have been written to help young Catholics remember the tenets of their faith. Each “gift” given was a memory tool to help a person remember an important catholic tenet. The “true love” mentioned in the song is referring to God and the “me” is referring to any baptized person. Below is a list of what each of the “gifts” could possibly mean:
- The “partridge in a pear tree” is Christ Jesus upon the Cross. Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge. A mother partridge would pretend to be injured to decoy a predator away from her nestlings. She was even willing to die for them, just as Christ died.
The tree in the song is the symbol of the fall of the human race through the sin of Adam and Eve (The Tree of Good and evil in the Garden of Eden). It is also the symbol of redemption by Jesus Christ on the tree of the Cross.
- The “two turtle doves” refers to the Old and New Testaments.
- The “three French hens” stand for faith, hope and love—the three gifts of the Spirit that remain no matter what happens.
- The “four calling birds” refers to the four apostles who wrote the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These four books tell the story of salvation through Jesus Christ.
- The “five golden rings” represents the first five books of the Bible, also called the Jewish Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
- The “six geese a-laying” is the six days of creation.
- The “seven swan’s a-swimming” refers to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord.
- The “eight maids a milking ” are a reminder of the eight beatitudes listed in the Sermon on the Mount.
- The “nine ladies dancing” were the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit found in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.
- The “ten lord’s a-leaping” represents the Ten Commandments
- The “eleven pipers piping” refers to the eleven faithful apostles.
- The ‘twelve drummers drumming” were the twelve points of belief expressed in the Apostles’ Creed.
Other popular theories include that it was a memory and forfeit game sung by 18th century British children. If you could not remember the previous item added to the song then you owed the last person to recite the song correctly a favor such as candy or a kiss. It is also suggested that the song “The Twelve days of Christmas” often gets confused with a similar song titled “A New Dial” which has similar meaning to those given to the twelve “gifts” in “The Twelve Days of Christmas”