The 12 Days of Christmas Means What?

Yep, I’ve puzzled over those crazy “12-Days of Christmas” gifts too.  Maids a-milking?  Lords jumping around?  A whole roomful of guys tooting on pipes and beating drums?  What kind of Christmas gifts are those!

When I first heard the explanation about secrets hidden in those words, it all made a mysterious sort of sense.  Yes!  English Catholics, persecuted by the newly Protestant Anglicans, so determined to preserve the tenets of their faith that they hid them in a Christmas carol, then taught it to their children as a catechism song:

First Day: A partridge in a pear tree. Jesus Christ, of course.

Second DayTwo turtle doves.  The Old and New Testaments.

Third Day: Three French hens.  Faith, hope, and love.

Fourth Day: Four calling birds. The four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Fifth Day: Five golden rings. The Torah; first five books of the Old Testament.

Sixth Day: Six geese a-laying. The six days of creation.

Seventh Day: Seven swans a-swimming.  Gifts of the Holy Spirit—prophesy, serving, teaching, exhortation, contribution, leadership, and mercy.

Eighth Day: Eight maids a-milking. The Beatitudes.

Ninth DayNine ladies dancing.  The nine fruits of the Holy Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

Tenth Day: Ten lords a-leaping.  Ten Commandments.

Eleventh Day: Eleven pipers piping. The eleven faithful disciples.

Twelfth Day: Twelve drummers drumming. Twelve points of belief in the Apostles’ Creed.

I liked it!  Finally, the confusion smoothed out.  Not only could I understand the song, but it gave a certain satisfaction to see Christ sneaked back into Christmas.

Problem was, on closer reflection, it didn’t really make sense. First of all, the strong indications were that the song was originally French, not English.  Even more, there isn’t a single tenet there that Protestant Anglicans didn’t also believe.  If it was a secret code for the persecuted Catholics, how come there wasn’t something unique to them?  Something about the Pope? Or veneration of Mary?  Something!  

Bottom line:  Who knows?   Although most everyone agrees that the 12 Days of Christmas do refer to the twelve days between the birth of Christ (December 25) and the coming of the Magi (January 6), it’s probably just a fun Christmas song after all. 

This year, I will quit my puzzling and enjoy the lords as they leap though the season– drums beating, pipes blowing and all kinds of birds adding their Christmas greetings!

“Christ was born in the first century, yet he belongs to all centuries. He was born a Jew, yet He belongs to all races. He was born in Bethlehem, yet He belongs to all countries.”

George W. Truett



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4 responses to “The 12 Days of Christmas Means What?

  1. Jean Stewart

    I agree, it sounds like the Christian elements were added after the fact, still, like you, I liked it.
    Have you ever heard the “Dear John thank you letter” for all those elements of the original song? She liked the partridge and the pear tree and the five gold rings, of course, but then all those birds were all over everywhere and those strange people and it ends with her almost having a nervous breakdown, definitely breaking up with John and harboring wishes to kill him. Funny stuff but definitely not Christian.

  2. LOL! I’ll have to listen for that one, Jean. Sounds like a Merry Ho Ho Hoot!

  3. Eric

    Great post Kay.
    It looks like the song was originally written as not much more than what it appears to be at face value:

    That being said, the personal meaning one finds can often have great significance – even when not originally intended by the author.

  4. So true! Isn’t that so with most songs?

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