The Twelve (Catholic) Days of Christmas

Categories: Around the Diocese,Guest Views

by Father Thomas Knoblach

12daysofchristmasIn digging through a box of prayer cards and such, I came across a short article titled How to Decode “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” I would like to share some of its information with you since we will hear this familiar song many times in stores and on the radio.

According to the author, Hugh McKellar, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was written in England as a way for Roman Catholics to teach the doctrines of Catholic faith to their children during the period from 1558-1829 when English law forbade the open practice of Catholicism. There are a number of songs from this period that express Catholic belief in a kind of “code” that sounds harmless — or pointless — to any who might overhear it.

The “12 days” extend from Dec. 25 (Christmas) to Jan. 6 (the traditional observance of Epiphany. In 2016, Epiphany in the U.S. is celebrated Jan. 3.) The speaker in the song is any Christian; the “true love” is God. The repetition in the song helps reinforce the learning, as well as reflect the generous renewal of God’s gifts. The symbolism of the song can have a variety of Christian interpretations.

  • In the Middle Ages, the partridge was a symbol of Christ; the mother partridge will feign injury to lure a predator away from the nest to protect her young, as Christ protects us from the power of sin and death. The pear tree looks like an apple tree from a distance; the idea in both symbols is to mislead the unwary, just as the song does. The tree is also a reminder of the tree of the Cross by which we are saved from death.
  • Two turtle doves is the Temple sacrifice offered by a Jewish family when a son was born and they could not afford a lamb. Thus it represents the sacrifice of Mary and Joseph for Jesus, and also may suggest the old and new covenants.
  • Three French hens were valued for their beauty but rare in England because of their cost. This trio may stand for the gifts of the Magi or the virtues of faith, hope and love.
  • Four calling birds suggest the four major prophets of the Old Testament (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel and Ezekiel) and the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).
  • Five golden rings are set apart — by the melody of the song, and by the fact that they are the only non-living objects in the song.
    They may represent the five sacraments all Catholics would receive, regardless of their vocation (baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance and anointing of the sick); or the first five books of the Old Testament (the “Torah”). The “ring” expresses eternity and perfection.
  • Six geese a-laying — awkward but productive — refers to the six days of creation.
  • Seven swans a-swimming — graceful but mute — suggests the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit or the seven works of mercy (corporal and spiritual).
  • Eight maids a-milking may not be glamorous but their labor provides nourishment, just as do the Eight Beatitudes.
    English Catholics of the time were also required to receive Communion eight times each year, where Christ himself was their nourishment.
  • Nine ladies dancing may suggest the nine choirs of angels or the fruits of the Holy Spirit.
  • Ten lords a-leaping point to the Ten Commandments that give us freedom and life.
  • Eleven pipers piping reminds us of the 11 apostles after the resurrection who proclaimed to the world the Good News — just as the music of pipers is not always popular but hard to ignore!
  • Twelve drummers drumming can refer to the 12 minor prophets of the Old Testament, the 12 apostles and the 12 points of belief in the Apostles’ Creed, and the 12 gates of the heavenly Jerusalem.

Other interpretations of the symbols may come to mind from your knowledge of Scripture and Catholic faith and doctrine.

I hope that you, like me, will listen to this song a bit differently in the future, knowing its origins with our brothers and sisters in the Catholic faith.

Father Knoblach is pastor of Holy Spirit, St. John Cantius and St. Anthony parishes in St. Cloud. This story was previously published in the Dec. 21, 2000, edition of The Visitor.