The Real “Twelve Days of Christmas”

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken December 17, 2000

This Window on the World didn’t turn out quite the way I planned. A few months ago a missionary agency sent me a newsletter explaining the real meaning of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”-or so I thought-and I had hoped to share it with you.

But first, a little background: The traditional twelve days of Christmas are not the days before Christmas, but the days after. They end on January 6, the Day of Epiphany, traditionally considered the day the Magi brought their gifts to the Christ child (see Matt. 2:1-12). In some places it is customary to exchange gifts, not only on Christmas, but also on Epiphany, and each day in between. Hence the well-known song: “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree,” and so forth.

According to the literature I received, there is a code to unlock the meaning of the popular song. The newsletter began by stating that “Christians were forbidden to teach Scripture outside of the established church in sixteenth-century England. So they developed creative ways to conceal Bible truths in songs. The Christmas song ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ is an example of this teaching method. Each day’s gift symbolizes a Christian teaching.” In other words, the popular song is not a silly love song after all, but a sort of underground musical catechism for preserving Christian doctrine. The “true love” turns out to be God himself, the giver of every good gift.

The newsletter went on to explain the meaning of each gift (based on a 1997 book by Helen Haidle called The Story Behind the Song: The Real 12 Days of Christmas). To begin with, “The partridge is an ancient Christian symbol of Christ; a small but valiant bird known for its willingness to die to save its young. The pear tree represents the cross.” Next come two turtledoves, a reminder of the sacrifice that Mary and Joseph offered when they dedicated Jesus at the Temple (Luke 2:24). French hens were costly in the sixteenth century; they represent the precious gifts of faith, hope, and love (1 Cor. 13:13), or perhaps the three gifts of the Wise Men. The four calling birds bespeak the four Gospels-Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Five golden rings represent God’s eternity. And so it goes: six geese for six days of creation; seven swans for seven gifts of the Holy Spirit; eight maids for eight Beatitudes; nine ladies for the fruit of the Spirit; ten lords for the Ten Commandments; eleven pipers for eleven faithful disciples; and twelve drummers for the dozen articles of the Apostles’ Creed.

Now that is a fascinating explanation of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” However, I was curious about the song’s exact origins, so I decided to do a little more research, by way of the Internet. The more I looked, the more suspicious I became, as I discovered several things that didn’t quite add up.

For one thing, I kept getting conflicting information about what each day meant. Some sources indicated that the turtledoves stood for the Old and New Testaments; that the three French hens represented the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; that the five golden rings were the Five Books of Moses; or that the seven swans were the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic church. It was beginning to seem like the song meant whatever you wanted it to mean.

Also, most of the articles claimed that the song was written for the benefit of young English Catholics who hoped to learn the basics of their faith without getting persecuted. However, there is nothing in the song that is distinctively Catholic. (The only possible exception is the seven sacraments, if that is the meaning of “seven swans a-swimming.”) The gifts in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” are ones that any Protestant would be happy to receive, such as the Gospels or the fruit of the Spirit. There could hardly have been a need for Catholics to develop a code song for such widely accepted biblical facts as the Ten Commandments. Besides, the song really does not work as a memory aid because it contains hardly any information. For example, the phrase “eight maids a-milking” is not very helpful for actually remembering all eight of the Beatitudes.

In the course of my research, I began to notice that many of the articles used similar phrases and sentences. Frankly, some of them were plagiarized, and they could all be traced to a single source: an article written by Father Hal Stockert and posted on the “Catholic Information Network.” Apparently, Father Stockert was the first to claim that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was a musical code. He makes this claim on the basis of his own research in historical documents, such as 17th-century letters. Unfortunately, he also admits that his original notes were lost in a flood, which leaves his interpretation completely unsubstantiated.

Finally, I arrived at a website called “Urban Legends,” sponsored by the San Fernando Valley Folklore Society. After examining the evidence, the Folklore Society reaches what is undoubtedly the safest conclusion: The idea that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a code that Roman Catholics developed to escape persecution is at best unverified, and at worst completely false.

There are some lessons to learn from my quest. One is not to believe everything you read, especially on the Internet. Another is how easy it is for rumors to spread. But perhaps the most important lesson is that a tradition is only as valid as the facts behind it. That is especially important to remember at Christmas, when legends abound-legends about snowmen and reindeer, about poinsettias and Santa Claus. There are even legends about the birth of Christ, such as the little drummer boy, or “little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.”

But Christmas itself is no legend. It is based on the fact that God sent his Son Jesus Christ to be our Savior. Jesus came to live the perfect life that we could never live, to die the painful death that we deserved to die, and to enter the glorious heaven that we hope to enter. It all began in Bethlehem, where Mary “gave birth to her firstborn, a son… wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).

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