Everyone has heard the “Twelve Days of Christmas Song” with it’s bewildering list of gifts that a “true love” gives to the song’s narrator; one gift for each day between December 25th when Jesus was born and twelve days later, January 6th when the three Kings, or Magi, arrived to give their gifts to the newborn baby Jesus. But what do all these gifts really mean?
The Making Christ Know website (http://www.makingchristknown.com/) states categorically that the song was developed as a secret way to teach Catholic children the Catholic catechism from 1558 to 1826 when Catholicism was illegal in England. So each day’s gift has a secret and symbolic meaning:
1st Day, A Partridge in a Pear Tree is Jesus Christ
2nd Day: Turtle Doves are the Old and New Testament of the Bible
3rd Day: French Hens are Faith, Hope and Charity
4th Day: Calling Birds are the Four Gospels
5th Day Golden Rings are the first Five Books of the Old Testament
6th Day: Geese A laying stands for God creating the world in six days
7th Day Swans A swimming are the seven spiritual gifts given by God
8th Day: Maids A milking are the eight beatitudes from the “Sermon on the Mount”
9th Day: Ladies Dancing are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit
10th Day: Lords A leaping are the Ten Commandments
11th Day: Pipers Piping are the eleven faithful disciples; minus Judas
12th Day: Drummers Drumming stands for the twelve points of the Apostle’s Creed
However, this may just be folklore. According to Jonathan Green in “Christmas Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Christmas”; the exact origins of the song are not known, but the earliest printed version still extant is from 1780’s “Mirth without Mischief” a book of children’s songs and games; although the song is no doubt much older than that. In the book the song is presented as a “memory and forfeit” game song. Where the leader sings a verse and the players must sing the next one correctly or forfeit something, such as give a kiss or some candy to the leader of the game. It was also used as a “counting” song to teach youngsters their numbers. In no way associated with the Catholic Church or the Christian religion in general.
Also there is some textual evidence that the song was originally French, not English. For example the partridge bird was not introduced into Britain until the late 1700’s, but was well known in France before that, indicating the song’s French origins.
Further, over time the meaning of some of the words and the verses have shifted, for example according to Michael Matrone’s “Four for a Quarter” the fourth day’s gift: “four calling birds” was originally “four collie bird.” The word “collie” means “coal black”, therefore the “four calling birds” were actually, four blackbirds. Also, “The Great Song Thesaurus” states that “five golden rings” are not jewelry but rather represents birds with rings on their necks such as pheasants. This means the first seven verses are all bird related.
In short the “Twelve Days of Christmas” song is a secular song, emphasizing gift-giving, singing and dancing at the holiday, not a surreptitiously sacred song designed to catechize young secret Catholics.