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The 12 Days of Christmas

The Christmas standard, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, is to most a rambling of strange ‘gifts’, which tests our memory. However, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” had a more solemn intention with significance beyond the seemingly trite ‘gifts.’
The English had begun writing Christmas carols in the 15th century, but when the Puritans came to power they suppressed both Christmas and its carols. After Christmas was restored in England, festive songs praising the occasion were written, but the only legal church was the state church – Church of England. Between 1558, the year Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne, and 1829, when George IV was king, Catholics in England were forbidden from any practice of their faith by law – public and private. It was, at that time, illegal to be Catholic punishable by imprisonment or execution.
During this dark time, Catholics looked for ways to preserve their faith and teach their children basic doctrine without being caught. Catholic parents used nonsense songs, including “The 12 Days of Christmas,” that would not arouse suspicion in non-Catholics but would remind the children of their faith. For this reason, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was memorized and passed down from one generation to the next before it was ever recorded in writing. What we think of as a silly song today was popular two centuries ago during this dismal period as a Catechism song, a memory aid.
First appearing in England around 1780, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was devised to allow Roman Catholics to practice their faith without fear of punishment. This was during a time when music and poetry was often used to express ideas contrary to what the law allowed. In this way, although the real meanings have mostly been lost to us today, Mother Goose rhymes were disguised political commentaries in the days before so-called ‘free speech’.
Each ‘gift’ had, in reality, a hidden meaning intended to help young Catholics learn one of the tenets of their faith. So, as Christmas has become a ‘holiday for the children’, we should all return to our childhood. In this way, we may learn the true meaning behind each of the ‘gifts’ of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, and, in addition, learn the true meaning of Christmas and our faith, as children of old once did!
To begin, we need to know when the twelve days of Christmas are. In this day of advertising and Christmas sales and shopping, most people believe the twelve days lead up to Christmas Day, but this is a misinterpretation. The period leading up to Christmas is, actually, the Advent season, not the Christmas season. Instead, it benefits retailers if they can get people shopping ahead of the season; hence, winter coats appear in the fall, spring fashions in the winter, bathing suits in spring and back-to-school in summer. They are, then, being consistent when they sell Easter dresses during Lent or decorate for Christmas in Advent. So, remember, merchants have sales and decorate for what is coming, not what is happening!
In the Church, as in the Jewish Synagogue, the day technically begins at sunset. Therefore, Christmas begins at sundown on December 24th, which we call ‘Christmas Eve.’ The Christmas season, then, begins on Christmas Eve and ends with Epiphany. The twelve days of Christmas are, then, December 26th through January 6th.  Epiphany, the traditional day for celebrating the coming of the three wise men to worship Jesus and bring Him gifts, begins on the twelfth night after Christmas; so, Epiphany was known as Twelfthnight in England.
In “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, each of the 12 verses camouflages a religious theme…
My True Love does not refer to an earthly suitor, it, in fact, refers to God, Himself.
Me, who receives the strange sequence of ‘gifts’, refers to every baptized person or the Church.
01+Day.bmp1. On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me a partridge in a pear tree…
The Partridge is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Christ is symbolically represented by a mother partridge, who will feign injury to distract predators away from her defenseless nestlings, and even, if necessary, give up her life for her children. This is a reminder of Christ’s expression of 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…” (Luke 13:34)
The Pear Tree is a reminder of the cross.
There fore…on the 1st day, God gave me the gift of Jesus on the Cross for the sins of the world
02day.bmp2. On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me two turtle doves…
Two Turtle Doves are The Old and New Testaments, gifts that each Christian receives, which together bear witness to God’s self-revelation in history and the creation of a people to tell the Story of God to the world.
03day.bmp3. On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me three French hens…
Three French Hens represents the gift of the Three Theological Virtues: 1) Faith, 2) Hope, and 3) Love. When the song was written, only the rich could afford these costly birds. “So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)
04day.bmp4. On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me four calling birds…
Four Calling Birds symbolizes the gift of The Four Gospels/Evangelists: 1) Matthew, a tax collector in Judea, whom Jesus called to be one of his apostles; 2) Mark, or John Mark, a young boy at the time of Jesus’ ministry, who later teamed up with St. Paul on his first missionary journey; 3) Luke, a Greek physician, and the only non-Jewish writer in the Bible; and 4) John, one of the 12 apostles, who wrote his Gospel many years after Jesus was crucified, while he himself was imprisoned for his faith on the island of Patmos. They proclaim the Good News of God’s reconciliation of the world to Himself in Jesus Christ. As early as the second century, Christian writers sought in Ezekiel’s vision (i, 5 sqq.) and in Apocalypse. (iv, 6-10) symbolical representations of the Four Evangelists. The system which finally prevailed in the Latin Church, consisted in symbolizing St. Matthew by a man (sometimes an angel), St. Mark by a lion, St. Luke by an ox, and St. John by an eagle.
05day.bmp5. On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me five gold rings…
Five Gold Rings denotes the gift of the first Five Books of the Old Testament, known as the Torah or the Pentateuch:  1) Genesis, 2) Exodus, 3) Leviticus, 4) Numbers, and 5) Deuteronomy, which gives the history of humanity’s sinful failure and God’s response of grace in the creation of a people to be a light to the world. Written by Moses, these books contain the early history of the Jews, the Ten Commandments and all the laws derived from them. Revered by the Jews, these books were considered to be worth more than gold, “even much fine gold.” (Psalms 19:9-10).
06day.bmp6. On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me six geese a-laying…
Six Geese A-Laying signifies the six days of creation that confesses God as Creator and Sustainer of the world (Genesis 1). God spoke the word and brought forth life. “And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.” (Genesis 1:31). Eggs are an almost universal symbol of new life.
07day.bmp7. On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me seven swans a-swimming…
Seven Swans A-Swimming symbolizes the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: 1) prophecy, 2) service/ministry, 3) teaching, 4) encouraging, 5) giving, 6) leadership, and 7) compassion/mercy (Romans 12:6-8; cf. 1 Corinthians 12:8-11).
08day.bmp8. On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me eight maids a-milking…
Eight Maids A-Milking represents the eight Beatitudes of Jesus (Matthew 5:3-10): 1) “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” 2) “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” 3) “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” 4) “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled,” 5) “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy,” 6) “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God,” 7) “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God,” 8) “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
9. On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me nine ladies dancing…09day.bmp
Nine Ladies Dancing symbolizes the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit: 1) “love,” 2) “joy,” 3) “peace,” 4) “patience,” 5) “kindness,” 6) “generosity/goodness,” 7) “faithfulness,” 8) “gentleness, and” 9) “self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23) 
010day.bmp10. On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me ten lords a-leaping… 
Ten Lords A-Leaping indicates the ten commandments: 1) I am the Lord your God; you shall not have strange gods before me; 2) You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; 3) Remember to keep holy the Lord’s day; 4) Honor your father and your mother; 5) You shall not kill; 6) You shall not commit adultery; 7) You shall not steal; 8) You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor; 9) You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife; 10) You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods. (Exodus 20:1-17)
11. On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me eleven pipers piping…011day.bmp
Eleven Pipers Piping represents the eleven Apostles who remained faithful to Jesus: 1) “Simon, whom he named Peter;” 2) “his brother Andrew;” 3) “James;” 4) “John;” 5) “Philip;” 6) “Bartholomew;” 7) “Matthew;” 8) “Thomas;” 9) “James, son of Alphaeus;” 10) “Simon, called the Zealot,” 11) “Judas, son of James.” (Luke 6:14-16). The list does not include the twelfth disciple, Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus to the religious leaders and the Romans.
012day.bmp12. On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me twelve drummers drumming…
Twelve Drummers Drumming represents The Twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles’ Creed: 1) “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” 2) “I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.” 3) “He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.” 4) “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell [the grave].” 5) “On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” 6) He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” 7) “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” 8) “the holy Catholic Church,” 9) “the communion of saints,” 10) “the forgiveness of sins,” 11) “the resurrection of the body,” 12) “and life everlasting.  Amen”
For years, the ditty helped youngsters learn their Catechism. Then in 1829, the English Parliament legalized Catholicism, and there was no more need to study in secret. Today, ironically, the song is associated only with the secular side of Christmas. Freedom of religion is one of those things you don’t notice much unless it’s gone, but “The 12 Days of Christmas,” which helped keep the faith alive when Catholics weren’t free, is still with us.

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Reader Comments  (1)

BeewitchingItems | December 28th 2011 at 1325109671

I just read about the song 'The Ten Days of Christmas' the other day and it was something that I never knew. I am so glad that you wrote this because I imagine there are a lot of people like me that didn't know. And I learned even more from your blog.

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