The Twelve Days of Christmas was originated as a children’s poem in a book called Mirth about Mischief in 1760. In the 20th century, composer Frederic Austin (1872-1952) added some of his own words and adapted a melody from a European folk song dating back to at least the 16th century.
The song has been a favorite Christmas Carol for many years, although many people sing it without understanding the real meaning. Since this was published, further research has indicated that its history is not what was first supposed.
The song was composed by Catholics in England during the 16th century, who were forbidden by law to practice their Catholic faith. The only legal church in England was the state church. To teach their children basic doctrine, they used nonsense songs that would not raise the suspicions of the non-Catholics around them, but would remind the children of their faith.
Many people know the opening lines to “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” But few know that behind the somewhat silly counting song is essential Christian doctrine
Celebrating the 12 days of Christmas is a tradition almost 2,000 years old. The 12 day/night observances begin December 25/26th, Christmas Day, and culminate on January 5/6th, the day of Epiphany (A Christian feast day which celebrates the revelation of God in human form, in the person of Jesus Christ).
Over the centuries, different cultures, churches and families have created their own 12-day celebrations.
Traditions vary greatly, from elaborate festivals to days of fasting; from providing food to the poor, to hanging out a stocking to be filled on Christmas Eve. Even people who don’t recognize Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Christ, sometimes unknowingly partake in 12-day traditions, such as hanging a wreath on the front door — a tradition handed down from the Pilgrims who hung the wreath on Christmas day as a ‘house blessing.’ The Pilgrims adapted this idea from a house-blessing ritual dating back to the 12-day celebrations of the 4th century.
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The words of The Twelve Days of Christmas appear to be nonsensical. They do however, have significant meaning. The explanation of the twelve days is below:
On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me
- The first day of the Christmas celebration is counted from December 26, the day after Christmas, to January 6, the traditional day for celebrating the coming of the wise men to worship Jesus, also called the day of “Epiphany.”.
A partridge in a pear tree.
The mother partridge will lure enemies away from her nest of defenseless chicks in order to protect them. She will literally risk her life for her children. The partridge in this song is a hidden reference to Christ, who declared, “I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14-15). Jesus himself uses a bird analogy in Matthew 23:37:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.
The pear tree symbolizes the cross, a literary usage called metonymy, whereby a thing is signified by a part or a whole of that thing. Jesus was crucified on a “tree,” Paul says (Gal. 3:13); that is, a cross made out of a tree.
Two turtle doves
The turtle doves stand both for the two testaments in the Bible (Old and New), but also, according to some traditions, the two turtle doves offered at Jesus’ dedication in the Temple when he was twelve (Lev. 12:8; Luke 2:24). All of the temple sacrifices are symbolic of the one sacrifice Christ made by giving his life as a just payment for the sins of all (Heb. 10:1-10).
Three French Hens
French Hens were very expensive during the 16th century, and thus are symbolic of the three costly gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh given by the wise men (Matt. 2:10-11). An alternate significance is symbolism depicting the value of the three Christ virtues, faith, hope, and charity (sacrificial love) (1 Cor. 13:13). Other forms of the song use the French Hens to symbolize the three persons of the trinity.
Four Calling Birds
The Calling Birds stand for the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (see John 20:30-31).
Five Golden Rings
The Rings stand for the first five books of the Old Testament, the “law of Moses” so often referenced in scripture, the “Torah” as they are called by Jews. The Torah tells the story of man’s fall into sin and reconciliation through the Messiah (see Luke 24:25-27).
Six Geese A-laying
Eggs are an almost universal symbol of new life. The “laying” geese, therefore, stand for the six days of creation (Gen. 1:31-2:2).
Seven Swans a Swimming
The swans symbolize the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit listed in Romans 12:6-8:
We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously, if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.
Eight Maids A-milking
The maids who milked the cows were the least of the servants in a home. Their job symbolized Christ’s faithfulness even to us who don’t deserve his love (Rom. 5:1-5). The eight maids stand for the eight “beatitudes” or blessings listed in Matthew 5:3-10:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Nine Ladies Dancing
The nine ladies remind us of the nine “fruits of the Spirit” described in Galatians 5:22-23:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Ten Lords A-leaping
Lords established the law in their own jurisdictions. The Lords stand for the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:3-17), which are holy and good, by which we should live, and by which we are justly condemned because of our sin (Gal. 3:10-28).
Eleven Pipers Piping
The Pipers remind us of the eleven original apostles who did not forsake the faith (Acts 1:13) as Judas did in betraying Christ (John 17:12); and through whom the good news of the gospel was preached “to the whole world” (Matt. 28:19; Rom. 10:18-21).
Twelve Drummers Drumming
The Apostles’ Creed is one of the earliest “confessions” of faith that summarize the basic teachings of biblical Christian faith. Orthodox confessions are not meant to add to or replace scripture, but to summarize its teachings. They can be recited at will to remind us of the basics of the Christian faith. The Drummers “set the pace,” reminders of what we believe by symbolizing the twelve doctrines summarized in the Apostles’ Creed which is as follows:
I believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, we crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell; the third day he rose from the dead.
He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty.
He shall return to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
The holy Christian church, the communion of saints,
The forgiveness of sins,
The resurrection of the body,
And life everlasting.