December 13, 2010: The Twelve Days of Christmas

by Mary Galvano

Last week in my article I wrote about the season of Advent, preparing the way of the Lord, and how Christmas day is just the start of the Christmas season for us as Christians. We have twelve days of celebration leading up to the Feast of Epiphany.

This excites me to share with all of you the meaning behind the Christmas carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. I am sure there are many who do know the meaning behind each verse, but for those of you who do not know, this silly song actually has a serious purpose and there is more to it than one may think. It is a song of faith, mystery, and courage.

During sixteenth century England, a time of religious persecution, “ The Twelve Days of Christmas” was written as kind of a secret catechism that Catholics could sing in public without being arrested. The Church of England was the legal religion of the time and Catholics, including children, could be put to death for practicing the faith. The carol served as a learning or memory aid to Christian facts. There can be two meanings to the carol, the surface meaning or the hidden meaning to which each verse has a code word for a religious truth. Each gift represented a major doctrine of the Catholic faith.

  1. A Partridge in a Pear Tree is Jesus with His courage and devotion of dying for us. (Luke 13:34 and Matthew 23:34) Also, a mother partridge will lure away predators from her chicks, even sacrificing her own life for them. The tree symbolizes the cross.
  2. Two Turtledoves are the Old and New Testaments. Doves are truth and peace.
  3. Three French Hens are the expensive gifts of the wise men: gold, frankincense and myrrh. French hens were, also, the food of kings in sixteenth century England. Another meaning behind the Three French Hens is faith, hope and love.
  4. Four Calling Birds are the four Gospels.
  5. Five Gold Rings recall the Hebrew Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament known as the Law of Moses.
  6. Six Geese A-Laying stands for the six days of creation. Eggs symbolize new life.
  7. Seven Swans A-Swimming stands for the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
  8. Eight Maids A-Milking is the eight Beatitudes. Being a milkmaid was one of the lowest jobs in sixteenth century England. Jesus came to save the poor and the humble.
  9. Nine Ladies Dancing represents the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit.
  10. Ten Lords A-Leaping is the Ten Commandments.
  11. Eleven Pipers Piping represents the eleven faithful apostles spreading Christ’s teaching after His death.
  12. Twelve Drummers Drumming symbolizes the twelve points of Catholic doctrine laid out in “The Apostle Creed”. The drummers may provide the cadence for reciting the creed.

The “true love” in the carol refers to God Himself and the “me” receiving the gifts is every Christian.

So, the next time you hear or sing this “silly” song at Christmas time, remember there is more meaning to it than we thought. As Catholics it is a true triumph over evil and a song of courage. It helped keep the truth of the Catholic Church alive in a time when it seemed impossible.

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