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Twelve Days Of Christmas

December 28, 2010
A Danish Christmas tree illuminated with burni...

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The Twelve Days of Christmas: The Meaning Behind The Song

The twelve days of Christmas are the twelve days between Christmas Day, Dec. 25th, the birth of Jesus, and the Epiphany, Jan. 6th, the day Christians celebrate the arrival of the Magi (Wise Men) and the revelation of Christ as the light of the world.
The Christmas song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” may sound silly and contrived to many of us. But it actually had its origins in religious symbolism – and with a serious purpose.
It dates from a time of religious persecution. The persecution of Catholics by the British government, a couple hundred years after the Reformation. If a Catholic was caught, they were hanged, drawn and quartered. The song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” was written as a kind of secret catechism that could be sung in public without fear of arrest – a learning or memory aid to Christians in fact.
The song can be taken at two levels of interpretation – the surface meaning, or the hidden meaning known only to the Christians involved. Each element is a code word for a religious truth.
1. The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus.
2. The two turtledoves are the Old and New Testaments.
3. Three French hens stand for faith, hope and love.
4. The four calling birds are the four Gospels.
5. The five gold rings recall the Hebrew Torah (Law), or the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament.
6. The six geese a-laying stand for the six days of creation.
7. The seven swans a-swimming represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
8. The eight maids a-milking are the eight Beatitudes.
9. Nine ladies dancing are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit.
10. The ten lords a-leaping are the Ten Commandments.
11. Eleven pipers piping represent the eleven faithful Apostles.
12. Twelve drummers drumming symbolize the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles Creed.

If you think Jesus being symbolized as a partridge in a pear tree sounds blasphemous, remember:
“Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered thee under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but thou wouldst not have it so.” (Luke 13:34 and Matthew 23:34)
The “true love” in the song refers to God Himself.
The “me” receiving the gifts is every Christian.
So that “silly” song we sing at Christmas time has more meaning than we thought.

Father Mark Hodges has a review of this hymn of the persecuted church on his facebook page. I tried to link it, but could not. Anyhow, I hope you enjoy this. It was something new for me. I must have had my head in the sand for decades…

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Susan permalink
    December 29, 2010 3:15 am

    This story seems to be repeated on the internet every Christmas, but it is nonsense. None of the truths supposedly taught in the song is distinctively Roman Catholic; every one of them was affirmed by the Protestants of those days – so why would the Catholics have to teach them in code?

    Best wishes for the rest of the twelve days of Christmas!

    • December 29, 2010 12:03 pm

      I don’t think the truths have to be specifically Roman Catholic in order for the story to be true. I think people assume that the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church are so drastically different than Protestantism. Some of the dogmas of the Catholic Church that Protestants and Orthodox would disagree with didn’t come until after this time period (I’m thinking of Vatican I).
      On another point, the persecutions were politically motivated, not religious. You were killed for being Catholic because it was viewed as treason against the Protestant king.
      So none of the truths in the song are limited to Catholicism. Doesn’t prove or disprove anything.
      I appreciate you taking to time to comment (even if I disagree with you).

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