What are the 12 Days of Christmas?

By Blogger Tracy Bua Smith

Although the calendar says December 26 and the Christmas carols are no longer playing on the radio and in stores, it is still Christmas!  Christmas begins on Christmas Day and continues for 12 more days until the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6, when the Magi visit the Christ Child and bring Him gifts.

So did you know that the famous Christmas song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, celebrates the beginning of the Christmas season, Christmas Day, in the liturgical calendar and ends on the Feast of the Epiphany?   Many mistakenly believe that the 12 days refers to the 12 days prior to the celebration of Christmas Day.

On our Christmas tree we have this beautiful ornament of a partridge in a pear tree that was given to my husband and me by an aunt who has since passed away.  We treasure this gift from our loved one and it wasn’t until I started researching about the song “The 12 Days of Christmas” that I realized that there is some controversy surrounding what the partridge in the pear tree symbolized, as well as the other items mentioned in the song.

christmas 2007

Image by paparutzi via Flickr

Several years ago, I read that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” has religious symbolism and according to Father Edward Dowling in the article, “The Real Meaning of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, The Twelve Days of Christmas” was written to educate the faithful in the doctrines of the faith and yet not be obvious to the persecutors. The numbers are simply a mnemonic to help Catholics remember some basic facts. Recall the words of the song. “On the 12th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: 12 lords a leaping, 11 pipers piping, 10  ladies dancing, nine drummers drumming, eight maids a milking, seven swans a swimming, six geese a laying, five golden rings, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.”

Father Dowling’s article then lists what each phrase of the song means as a way for Catholic Christians to remember the doctrines of the faith: “My true love” refers to God, “me” is the individual Catholic.
The “12 lords a leaping” are the twelve basic beliefs of the Catholic Church as outlined in the Apostles Creed.
The “11 pipers piping” are the eleven Apostles who remained faithful after the treachery of Judas.
The “10 ladies dancing” are the 10 Commandments.
The “nine drummers drumming” are the nine choirs of angels which in those days of class distinction were thought important.
The “eight maids a milking” are the Eight Beatitudes.
The “seven swans a swimming” are the Seven Sacraments.
The “six geese a laying” are the Six Commandments of the Church or the six days of creation.
The “five golden rings” are the first five books of the Old Testament (called the Torah) which are generally considered the most sacred and important of all the Old Testament.
The “four calling birds” are the Four Gospels.
The “three French hens” are the Three Persons in God or the three gifts of the Wise Men.
The “two turtle doves” represent the two natures in Jesus: human and divine or the two Testaments, Old and New.
The “partridge” is the piece de resistance, Jesus himself, and the “pear tree” is the Cross.
It wasn’t until I did a search on the internet about “The Twelve Days of Christmas” that I realized that the religious symbolism behind the song is thought to be fiction.  For example,Snopes states that the song was NOT created as a “coded reference to important articles of the Christian faith.”  Then Snopes goes into detail why some claim this to be false.  “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, according to many articles that I have read, might have been mixed up with another song titled, “A New Dial” which dates to at least 1625 and assigns religious meanings to each day of the 12 days of Christmas.

After reading many articles about the real meaning of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” song I’m not  sure if the song has religious symbolism or not since it appears there is no sound proof for it to be true or false.

What do you think?

Have you heard about the religious symbolism in “The Twelve Days of Christmas”?  Were you aware of the differences of opinions in whether or not the song was created as a type of catechism during a time of persecution?   I think this is a fascinating topic and would love to hear what others think about it.

There are many parodies that have come from “The Twelve Days of Christmas” song and I would like to conclude this post with 2 variations that you may have never heard, but I found them to be fun and entertaining.

The first video is titled “The Twelve Days of Homeschooling” which I found funny as a homeschool mom myself to my four children.

This second video is the group Straight No Chaser singing a creative and entertaining version called “12 Days of Christmas Medley”.

On this first week of Christmas, I wish you a Merry Christmas!

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2 responses to “What are the 12 Days of Christmas?

  1. Christine Moughamian

    Thanks, Tracy for your great post. The homeschooling video is hilarious! (I know a home-schooled boy who got a grant from Brown University.) Loved the singing straight no chaser video and voices!

  2. Hi Christine! Thanks for taking the time to read my post and leave your encouraging comment! I loved the Homeschooling video and the Straight No Chaser clip as well and I’m glad you enjoyed them too! Happy New Year!

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