Twelve days of Christmas
We’re all familiar with the Christmas song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” To most it’s a delightful rhyme set to music. But it had a quite serious purpose when it was written.
It is a good deal more than just a repetitious melody with pretty phrases and a list of strange gifts.
When are the Twelve Days of Christmas?
What we do know is that the twelve days of Christmas in the song are the twelve days between the birth of Christ (Christmas, December 25) and the coming of the Magi (Epiphany, January 6). Although the specific origins of the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” are not known, it possibly began as a Twelfth Night “memory-and-forfeits” game in which the leader recited a verse, each of the players repeated the verse, the leader added another verse, and so on until one of the players made a mistake, with the player who erred having to pay a penalty, such as a offering up a kiss or a sweet. This is how the song was presented in its earliest known printed version, in the 1780 children’s book Mirth Without Mischief. (The song is apparently much older than this printed version, but we do not currently know how much older.) Textual evidence indicates that the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was not English in origin, but French. Three French versions of the song are known, and items mentioned in the song itself (the partridge, for example, which was not introduced to England from France until the late 1770s) are indicative of a French origin.
It is possible that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” has been confused with (or is a transformation of) a song called “A New Dial” (also known as “In Those Twelve Days”), which dates to at least 1625 and assigns religious meanings to each of the twelve days of Christmas (but not for the purposes of teaching a catechism). In a manner somewhat similar to the memory-and-forfeits performance of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” the song “A New Dial” was recited in a question-and-answer format:
|What are they that are but one?
We have one God alone
In heaven above sits on His throne. What are they which are but two?
Two testaments, the old and new,
We do acknowledge to be true.
What are they which are but three?
What are they which are but four
What are they which are but five?
What are they which are but six?
|What are they which are but seven?
Seven liberal arts hath God sent down
With divine skill man’s soul to crown. What are they which are but eight?
Eight Beatitudes are there given
Use them right and go to heaven.
What are they which are but nine?
What are they which are but ten?
What are they which are but eleven?
What are they which are but twelve?
The Twelve Days of Christmas – Today . . .
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is what most people take it to be: a secular song that celebrates the Christmas season with imagery of gifts and dancing and music. Some misinterpretations have crept into the English version over the years, though. For example, the fourth day’s gift is four “colly birds” (or “collie birds”), not four “calling birds.” (The word “colly” literally means “black as coal,” and thus “colly birds” would be blackbirds.) The “five golden rings” refers not to five pieces of jewelry, but to five ring-necked birds (such as pheasants). When these errors are corrected, the pattern of the first seven gifts’ all being types of birds is re-established.
Some even like to say the songs gifts are hidden meanings to the teachings of the faith. The “true love” mentioned in the song doesn’t refer to an earthly suitor, it refers to God Himself. The “me” who receives the presents refers to every baptized person. The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge which feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings, much in memory of the expression of Christ’s sadness over the fate of Jerusalem: “Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered thee under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but thou wouldst not have it so…”
The other symbols mean the following:
2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the “Pentateuch”, which gives the history of man’s fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed
The Reason for the Season
Whatever meaning you decide to connect to “The Twelve of Christmas,” the song has made a permanent mark on our hearts and has become a part of celebrating Christmas. Traditions have a purpose and I know that taking time to look into the meaning behind this song, has definitely given me a new perspective and appreciation. The reason for the season can get lost on even the best of us. It’s nice to know that now I can hear this song and have one more reminder for the real Reason for the Season. God Bless and Merry Christmas!!