Read this to discover the real meaning of “The 12 Days of Christmas”

It’s a famous Christmas song, but do you know what “The 12 Days of Christmas” is really all about? Tim Gibson has the lowdown

By Tim Gibson

For many, it is regarded as one of the most annoying Christmas songs of all time. But there’s no denying that “The 12 Days of Christmas” has a catchy tune that makes it a likely earworm during the festive season.

    One of the most popular theories about the song is that it’s a secret code,...  

Few of us can remember the gifts given by the singer’s “true love” on each of the 12 days of Christmas. But that’s not really the point, because the internet is full of attempts to decode this most famous of Christmas carols.

One of the most popular theories about the song is that it’s a secret code, enabling Roman Catholics to articulate the bases of their faith even while they were being persecuted.

According to this theory, each of the gifts relates to an element of Christian teaching or faith, with a particularly Catholic spin. The idea is that it enabled dissident Roman Catholics to express their faith and pass it on, without fear of being lynched.

Here’s what each gift relates to, according to the theory:

  • A Partridge in a Pear Tree (First Day): Jesus Christ
  • Two Turtle Doves (Second Day): the Old and New Testaments
  • Three French Hens (Third Day): the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity
  • Four Calling/Collie Birds (Fourth Day): the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
  • Five Golden Rings (Fifth Day): the first five books of the Old Testament (known as the “Pentateuch” or “Torah”)
  • Six Geese-a-Laying (Sixth Day): the six days of creation before the Sabbath
  • Seven Swans-a-Swimming (Seventh Day): the seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, holy communion, extreme unction (anointing of the sick), confession and absolution, marriage, ordination
  • Eight Maids-a-Milking (Eighth Day): the eight Beatitudes, given by Jesus during his Sermon on the Mount
  • Nine Ladies Dancing (Ninth Day): the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit (love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control)
  • Ten Lords-a-Leaping (Tenth Day): the Ten Commandments
  • Eleven Pipers Piping (Eleventh Day): the eleven faithful disciples (12 minus Judas)
  • Twelve Drummers Drumming (Twelfth Day): the twelve points of belief in the Apostles' Creed

Sounds persuasive, doesn’t it? But myth-busting website Snopes has been quick to pour cold water on the theory, citing the obvious argument that, as it turns out, Roman Catholics weren’t especially persecuted when the song was written (most likely in the 19th Century).

Or, to be more precise, it says that the differences in emphasis between Roman Catholics and Anglicans are not drawn out by the song’s supposed symbolism: anything referenced by the song’s “code” would have been uncontroversial for any Christian to believe, whether Catholic or Protestant.

    ...it’s unlikely a bafflingly complex song would be developed just to communicate this difference in emphasis between believers.  

Actually, that’s not quite right. For example, a big dividing line between Catholics and Protestants was the number of sacraments, with the former believing there are seven (fits with the song), and many in the latter camp acknowledging only two (baptism and holy communion).

That said, it’s unlikely a bafflingly complex song would be developed just to communicate this difference in emphasis between believers. And, as Snopes points out, without some knowledge among listeners of the theological tenet to which each gift refers (which would presumably involve further, more overt instruction), the Catholic faith wouldn’t effectively be passed on using this method.

We can probably put to bed the idea that this carol has some hidden Christian meaning, therefore. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a Christian song. It’s about Christmas, duh? Doesn’t come more Christian than that.

And, of course, the 12 days relate to the liturgical season of Christmas, starting on Christmas Day and ending with the Feast of Epiphany on 6 January, which marks the arrival of the three magi to the stable.

So, we can say with confidence that “The 12 Days of Christmas” is Christian, even though the argument that it contains a secret theological code lacks weight.

Oh, and it’s a nice song about birds and stuff.

© 2019 Just Recruitment Group Ltd

Published: 23 December 2019

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