The Meaning Behind the The 12 Days of Christmas


The Twelve days of Christmas is a very repetitive song that personally I don’t hear often these days. The song, as many know, consists of lines that continue to multiply until twelve are sung as the song goes on, but it takes time to repeat the entire group of lines every time a new one is added. Now what many don’t know is that the song has roots of Catholic origin, dating back to hard times of persecution. The song forms a sort of code to communicate between fellow Catholics, with each gift representing a religious term associated with a symbolic number. Try to guess which is which before reading the article!

Let’s start with the history. The song is a traditional English carol dating back to 1780 that originally did not have music, and may have actually begun in French. As time progressed melodies were added and changed over time. 

Next, the lyrics of each line can be broken down. The first day, the singer is given A Partridge in a Pear Tree. The major, one Christian symbol is Jesus. This specific bird choice is also important, and the partridge is taken as a symbol for Jesus even outside the song, since the bird will sacrifice itself in defense of its young. The second gift is Two Turtle Doves, which represent the two Testaments of the Bible. Doves are important figures religiously, used as sacrifices in the Old and New Testament and shown in the story of Noah when one brought an olive branch to him on the Ark. The third gift is Three French Hens, which represent the theological virtues, faith, hope and love/charity. The fourth gift is Four Calling Birds, the four Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The birds call out the Word of God, much as the Gospels do. The fifth is the famous drawn out Five Golden Rings, which, though a little harder to pinpoint, represents the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Now onto the second part of the song. Personally I’m not sure why they decided to draw out the lyrics at five, since there are twelve days and it would be more convenient to divide the song by half, with six days each. Moving on, the sixth gift is Six Geese a-Laying, which refers to the first six days of creation, since, well, nothing was actually created technically on the 7th except for another day of the week, though the most important one. Now, if there were seven days of creation in actuality, then why wasn’t the seventh gift reserved for the days? Because the 7th gift, Seven Swans a-Swimming, represents the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, taught in the Catechism as wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and Fear of the Lord. You can arguably shave off a day for the creation story, but you can’t just exclude a gift of the Holy Spirit. Now here’s where things get complicated. The number eight is scarce in its definitive form in the Bible. One source says it refers more to the maids than the number, as maids in England were very low class at the time, but Jesus cares for them as well. The number eight may also refer to Jesus showing himself eight times after his death, or the eight people saved from Noah’s Ark. The ninth gift, Nine Ladies Dancing is debatable, as it may represent nine out of twelve of the fruits of the Spirit. Not sure why, maybe it was just the most important ones mentioned in Galatians 5:22-23. The tenth gift is the Ten Lords a-Leaping. This decently obviously refers to the ten commandments, there’s no other number ten more important in the Bible. The eleventh gift is Eleven Pipers Piping. The eleven pipers piping may refer to the eleven true Apostles, since well, we all know at this point what Judas did. Not to throw shade.

Lastly, the twelfth gift is Twelve Drummers Drumming. The drummers represent the twelve points of belief in the Apostles’ Creed. Count the prayer again, there’s twelve. Anyways, that sums it up for the song. Merry Christmas to all readers!