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Mythbusting the 12 Days of Christmas


On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me the ability to reason. Not really, it’s five golden rings! The only verse anyone consistently remembers other than the partridge in a pear tree verse. You may have seen the true meaning of “The 12 Days of Christmas” bit passed around, particularly if you’re Catholic.

With this as a background, we can see the need for secrecy and deception. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was written to educate the faithful in the doctrines of the faith and yet not be obvious to the persecutors. The numbers are simply a mnemonic to help Catholics remember some basic facts. Recall the words of the song. “On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: twelve lords a leaping, eleven pipers piping, ten ladies dancing, nine drummers drumming, eight maids a milking, seven swans a swimming, six geese a laying, five golden rings, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.”

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” celebrates the official Christmas season which starts liturgically on Christmas Day and ends twelve days later on the Feast of the Epiphany. “My true love” refers to God, “me” is the individual Catholic. The “twelve lords a leaping” are the twelve basic beliefs of the Catholic Church as outlined in the Apostles Creed. The “eleven pipers piping” are the eleven Apostles who remained faithful after the treachery of Judas. The “ten ladies dancing” are the Ten Commandments. The “nine drummers drumming” are the nine choirs of angels which in those days of class distinction were thought important. The “eight maids a milking” are the Eight Beatitudes. The “seven swans a swimming” are the Seven Sacraments. The “six geese a laying” are the Six Commandments of the Church or the six days of creation. The “five golden rings” are the first five books of the Old Testament called the Torah which are generally considered the most sacred and important of all the Old Testament. The “four calling birds” are the Four Gospels. The “three French hens” are the Three Persons in God or the three gifts of the Wise Men. The “two turtle doves” represent the two natures in Jesus: human and divine or the two Testaments, Old and New. The “partridge” is the piece de resistance, Jesus himself, and the “pear tree” is the Cross.

Except it’s probably not true. According to folklorists, the song — which was first printed in English in the late 1700s well past the days of religious persecution — was probably of French origin. Yes, there was repression of Catholics in France, but not by Protestants, and not til after this song appeared. Actually, at the time, French Catholics were persecuting Protestants. See Calvin, Jean.

But even without that bit of knowledge, we can debunk the claim that the song is code with a little careful reasoning. Let’s look at the symbols that represent aspects of the faith that are banned by the oppressors, whoever they may have been.

The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus on the cross. Because you automatically think Jesus when you see partridge. Also? Protestants are okay with learning about Jesus and the crucifixion.

Two turtle doves: two natures of Jesus or two testaments. Also a common belief that Catholics and Protestants share.

Three French Hens: Triune God, three wise men (or in some versions faith, hope, and love.) Again, not a big fight over these in Christendom.
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Four calling birds are the four gospels. (Do you see where I’m going here?) Five golden rings are the Torah. Six Geese a laying are the six days of creation. Lots of things in common. Let’s all sing Kumbaya.

Oh, hey! We have our first point of disagreement. Seven swans a swimming are the seven Sacraments, where as Protestants believe there are only two. Funnily enough, there’s a Protestant version, too, with the 7 gifts of the Spirit instead of the 7 Sacraments. Falling for a good story is an ecumenical trait. Either way, what about swimming swans says either sacraments or fruits of the Spirit? Wouldn’t doves be a better representative of the Holy Spirit? But they were used earlier to represent the two testaments or the two natures of God. So swans it is!

Back to the song: Eight maids a milking are the beatitudes, nine drummers drumming are nine choirs of angels, which may have been an area of disagreement by why use drummers to represent singers. Why not say nine singers singing? (The Protestant version says 9 fruit of the Spirit — not something Catholics oppose, actually!) Ten ladies dancing are the ten commandments, eleven pipers piping are the eleven faithful apostles, and finally, twelve lords a leaping are the beliefs outlined in the Apostles Creed — which Protestants also embrace.

That’s an awful lot of work to hide a teaching about seven sacraments and possibly nine angel choirs. Protestants don’t have anything to hide in their version of the song. Even if it wasn’t created to hide teachings, but merely to communicate truths of the faith, it doesn’t seem like the clearest way to do that. Frankly, it just doesn’t make sense.

Christians, God gave us the ability to reason, let’s use it. Sometimes a song is just a song.

Catholics, Protestants, non-Christians alike can enjoy this version together.

One response to “Mythbusting the 12 Days of Christmas”

  1. […] *No there is no evidence that the song was actually a code for a persecuted minority to teach the tr…, neither persecuted Protestants nor persecuted Catholics, though they each persecuted the heck out of each other from time to time. A little careful thinking will tell you this is unlikely. The symbolism is suppose to mean things like the two testaments, the Trinity, and the four gospels. In addition to it being a really bad mnemonic device, neither Catholics nor Protestants are opposed to those things being taught. If you want to talk about the nature of Communion (or the Eucharist) or the authority of the Pope, well then things get more interesting. But those things generally aren’t included in the (totally made up) lists I’ve seen. […]

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