The 12 Days of Christmas
The fiction and facts of its origin and hidden meanings
Historically, the 12 days of Christmas followed-did not precede-December 25th. These dozen days began on the day after Christmas, December 26th, and ended the day before Epiphany (the coming of the Magi), January 6th. In 567 AD, in order to encourage the people to abandon pagan holidays, The Council of Tours declared the 12 days of Christmas to be a festival.
The 12 Days of Christmas--two diverse histories
Some historians believe that The 12 Days of Christmas had hidden religious meanings; other historians argue that the words had no special significance at all. At first listening, The 12 Days of Christmas sounds like a delightful Children's nonsense song. But, according to the first group of historians, the original meaning of The 12 Days of Christmas was very serious. They interpret the song's history in this manner: In England, from the mid-1500s through 1829, Catholics were denied any private or public practice of their religion. The 12 Days of Christmas, they say, was written as a catechism with a camouflaged meaning to help Catholic children learn the doctrines of their faith.
For example, "true love" doesn't refer to an earthly suitor, rather to God Himself. Likewise, the "me" in the song, the one who receives the gifts in each verse, is actually any baptized person, a member of the family of Christ. The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ. As will a mother partridge, Christ gathers His chicks under His wings for loving protection. Each of the 12 days of Christmas represents an aspect of Christianity that the ancients believed children should learn-even if they had to learn those precepts in secret.
Other purported meanings in The 12 Days of Christmas
- A Partridge in a pear tree--Jesus Christ.
- Two Turtle Doves--The Old and New Testaments.
- Three French Hens--The Trinity and/or Faith, Hope and Charity.
- Four Calling Birds--The Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists who wrote the Gospels.
- Five Golden Rings--The first Five Books of the Old Testament.
- Six Geese A-laying--The six days of creation.
- Seven Swans A-swimming--The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and/or the seven sacraments of the Catholic faith and/or seven liberal arts.
- Eight Maids A-milking--The eight beatitudes and/or eight persons saved in the Ark.
- Nine Ladies Dancing--The nine Fruits of the Spirit and/or Muses and/or kinds of angels.
- Ten Lords A-leaping--The Ten Commandments.
- Eleven Pipers Piping: The remaining eleven faithful apostles.
- Twelve Drummers Drumming--The twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles' Creed, and/or Apostles altogether, and/or heavenly gates and/or Jewish tribes.
The 12 Days of Christmas--a second opinion
The second group of historians doesn't believe any of this. There were times, they say, that prior to the reformation, the practicing of Christianity was openly banned. But for reasons of timing and customs, applying hidden religious meanings to The 12 Days of Christmas is historically unlikely. In addition, they argue, using a Christmas song as a method of learning or maintaining Christian beliefs in an atmosphere where Christianity itself was outlawed is a ridiculous claim, since all facets of Christmas celebrations surely would have been banned as well.
Hence their conclusion: "There is no substantive evidence to demonstrate that The 12 Days of Christmas was created or used as a secret means of preserving tenets of the Catholic faith, or that this claim is anything but a fanciful speculation, similar to the many attempts to find hidden meanings in various nursery rhymes."
Agreeing on The 12 Days of Christmas
Both sides seem to agree that The 12 Days of Christmas served as a memory game whereby each child recited a verse until someone missed a verse and had to pay some sort of penalty. At least this was how the song was presented in its earliest known printed version in the 1780 children's book Mirth Without Mischief. In that publication, the lyrics were put to an old French tune.
In fact, the original text may have been French rather than English!-another interesting twist. Three French versions of The 12 Days of Christmas exist. And here is an additional argument against the song's assumed English origin: partridges, while common in France, did not show up in England until the late 1770s, years after the song was published.
All of which makes you wonder, but won't stop you from enjoying The 12 Days of Christmas this Christmas season.
Ideas for Your Kids and Family
Remember feeling discouraged after you opened your last present? Why not extend Christmas to 12 days? Start a new twelve-day family tradition! Each day:
- Open one present
- Bless someone's life
- Help someone
- Bake and delivery Christmas goodies
- Read a new story
- Sing a carol
- Call or visit family or friends
- Read scriptures