The Twelve Days of Christmas
We have all heard the nonsense rhyme, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” set to music, but what we are not familiar with is its serious purpose when it was written.
Between 1558 and 1829 until Parliament finally emancipated Catholics in England, Catholics were prohibited from public or private practice of their faith by law. It was a crime to be a Catholic, so secrecy was important. To be caught practicing the Catholic faith or caught with “written words” indicating adherence to the Catholic faith could mean imprisonment or capital punishment in a brutal fashion.
As a result, Catholics developed “The Twelve Days of Christmas” set to song and repetition so that Catholic youngsters would learn the essence of their faith under the cover of symbols. In the stanzas “true love” does not refer to earthly love but God himself and “me” refers to every baptized person.
So the elements of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” unfolds for the reader as a bit of a religious tract outlining the tenants of the Catholic faith, although its original reasons for being has been lost until now.
One Partridge in the Pear Tree – Jesus Christ, Son of God.
Two Turtle Doves – Old and New Testaments.
Three French Hens – faith, hope and charity theological virtues.
Four Calling Birds – 4 Gospels or the 4 Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).
Five Golden Rings – first five books of the Old Testament known as the Pentateuch outlining the history of the human fall from grace.
Six Geese a-laying – 6 days of creation.
Seven Swans a-swimming – 7 sacraments or 7 gifts (wisdom, understanding, counsel fortitude, knowledge, piety, fear of God) of the Holy Spirit.
Eight Maids a-milking – 8 beatitudes.
Nine Ladies a-dancing – 9 fruits (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control) of the Holy Spirit.
Ten Lords a-leaping – 10 Commandments.
Eleven Pipers piping – 11 faithful apostles.
Twelve Drummers a-drumming – 12 points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed.
So you have an outline of the Catholic faith that parents could go on and explain to their children without having to rely on the written word which was learned by repetition. As emancipation of Catholics set in, the original meaning of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” passed by the wayside and the rhyme that we know emerged with no religious significance.
Happy Holidays to All!