Friday, December 18, 2009

The True Twelve Days of Christmas


A Secret Christian Message Hidden in Secular Lyrics


Kathy Ide

I love Christmas carols. Of course my favorites are the ones that joyfully extol the birth of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. But I have to admit, even the tunes about snow and presents and jingling bells touch my spirit too. Christmas carols are all full of love, joy, peace, happiness, and hope. For me, these songs are a vital part of what makes Christmas “the most wonderful time of the year.”

But then there’s that one oddball carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Oh, it has a catchy tune, like all good songs. But those silly lyrics! Why sing about hordes of off-the-wall gifts some rich lover bestows on the object of his affection? What is he trying to prove anyway? That he can outgive, by far, any lover on the face of this or any other planet? Give me a break!

Then one Christmas I came across a blurb in my church newsletter about the origins of this nonsensical song. That spurred me on to do some research, and it turns out there’s a lot more to this crazy carol than I’d ever imagined.

It seems there really are twelve days of Christmas—the days between Christmas and Epiphany (January 6), which is when the three wise men supposedly arrived on the scene. The Feast of Epiphany began in the second century. By the sixth century, the traditional “twelve days of Christmas” had become a way of celebrating the turning of the year. Exchanging small, inexpensive gifts on each of the twelve days was a favorite holiday tradition among families of the time.

From 1558 to 1829, Catholics in England were prohibited by law to practice their faith either in public or private. It was actually illegal to be Catholic until the British Parliament emancipated the Catholics in 1829. To be caught with anything in writing indicating adherence to the Catholic faith could not only get you imprisoned, it could result in your being hanged or beheaded; that is, if you were lucky enough not to be tortured in one of several cruel ways.

Due to this intense persecution, Catholics were afraid even to hum the beloved religious songs of the season. Can you imagine Christmas without carols? So “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was written full of code words with hidden meanings that Catholics could sing without the heretics knowing they were praising the Lord. It also served as a way to help young Catholics learn their “catechism,” the basic tenets of their faith.

Since the lyrics sounded like rhyming nonsense, young Catholics could sing them without fear of imprisonment. The authorities did not know it was a religious song. And the catechism to which it referred was general enough that it could even be claimed to be Protestant, if you were caught singing it.

The “true love” mentioned in the song doesn’t refer to an earthly suitor after all, but to the giver of all good and perfect gifts, God Himself.

God the Father “gave to me,” first and foremost, “a partridge in a pear tree,” representing Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten Son. Interestingly, a mother partridge will sometimes pretend she is injured to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings, much as Christ gave His life on the cross for us, His children.

Although sources vary somewhat on the specifics, the other symbols in the song represent the following gifts from God:

2 Turtle Doves The Old and New Testaments

3 French Hens Faith, hope, and love, the three gifts of the Spirit
(1 Corinthians 13)

4 Calling Birds The four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)

5 Golden Rings The first five books of the Old Testament, also called the Pentateuch or the Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy)

6 Geese a-laying The six days of creation (Genesis 1–2)

7 Swans a-swimming The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:8–11; Romans 12; Ephesians 14; 1 Peter 4:10–11)

8 Maids a-milking The eight beatitudes (Matthew 5:1–12)

9 Ladies Dancing The nine fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23)

10 Lords a-leaping The ten commandments (Exodus 20:1–17)

11 Pipers Piping The eleven faithful disciples

12 Drummers Drumming The twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles’ Creed

So it turns out I was right about this song all along. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a carol about a lover who can outgive any other, by far. For who of us can outgive God? And what Christmas gifts could possibly surpass those He has given to His “true love,” the church of believers, as we celebrate the birth of His Son, Jesus Christ?

Read the previous story, "Miracle of the Nativity" by Tracy Ruckman.

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Seema said...

This is fascinating. I have a renewed admiration for this song. Thank you for sharing.

Debbie Roome said...

I had no idea there was anything Christian in this carol - I have a whole new appreciation for it now.