The Twelve Days of Christmas

24 Dec

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me
A partridge in a pear tree…

There is much to be learned by listening to the radio on your drive home from work. Today, one radio host was doing a Christmas program that took the place of the regularly-scheduled afternoon news. I found her segment about the popular carol, “The Twelve Days of Chrismas”, to be particularly informative. I suspected it had religious roots, but I didn’t know just how Catholic it was until today.

During the reign of Queen Mary I (1553-1558 ), many anti-papal laws passed by Henry VIII (1509-1547) and his sickly and short-lived successor Edward VI (1547-1553) were repealed. Mary’s murderous tendencies earned her the nickname “Bloody Mary”. Anyone perceived to be opposed to Catholicism risked gruesome death at the hands of the monarchy. After Queen Mary’s death, anti-Catholic sentiment that was fuelled in part by Mary I’s abuses of her Catholicism surfaced. As is written of Mary I: “The bitter remembrance of the blood shed in the cause of Rome which, however partial and unjust it must seem to an historic observer, still lies graven deep in the temper of the English people.” (Green, Short History, from Queen Mary arguably did the Roman Catholic cause more harm than good in England.

Thus, Queen Elizabeth I’s (1558-1603) first Act of Parliament was to restore six of seven anti-Papal laws passed by Henry VIII between 1530 and 1535, including the Act of Supremacy, which transferred the rights previously ascribed to the Pope to the English Head of State. Also, Catholics could no longer hold office. This was later extended to a prohibition of Catholics to vote. Increasingly, Catholics were sought after unjustly, and many met martyrdom.

Eventually, the predominantly Catholic Irish became more vocal defenders of their rights. This forced England to re-consider the legal status of Catholics. In 1791 the Relief Act passed, granting tolerance to Catholic schools and freedom to worship openly. The Relief Act also granted voting rights to Catholics, but stopped short of allowing Catholics to sit in Parliament. The French Revolution eliminated much of the Catholic (as well as Anglican) English foothold in France. This forced many clergy to return to England and thus exert more political influence there. The Irish Rebellion (1798 ) also pushed England toward a complete legal acceptance of Catholics with the Catholic Emancipation Act (1829).

Now back to the Twelve Days of Christmas…

Between 1558 and 1829, it was illegal to be Catholic in England, and, as said earlier, being openly Catholic often meant imprisonment or execution. The Twelve Days of Christmas was written as a “Catechism song” for young Catholic children. It worked wonderfully to teach the faith to children without the state suspecting that it had Catholic origins.

The True Love referred to in the carol is God. He sent his only begotten Son, the delicate “partridge in a pear tree” (Mother partridges feign injury to protect their young; protection of children was seen as a Christ-like attribute) and many other gifts mentioned in Scripture or in Catholic Tradition. Eleven other gifts are mentioned in the carol:

Two turtle doves refers to the Old and New Testaments.

Three French hens symbolize the virtues St. Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 13:13- Faith, hope, and love (charity).

The four calling birds call to mind the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

The five golden rings are the Jewish law (pentateuch)- the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

The six geese-a-laying are meant as the six days of Creation (Genesis 1).

The seven swans-a-swimming could be the seven Sacraments (Baptism, Reconciliation, Eucharist, Confirmation, Holy Matrimony, Holy Orders, and the Anointing of the Sick) or the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit- Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, and Fear (Awe) of the Lord. (From Isaiah 11:2. Piety is added by tradition.)

The eight maids-a-milking represent the eight beatitudes- Blessings to
the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for righteousness. (Matthew 5:3-10)

The nine ladies dancing are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22)

The ten lords-a-leaping are the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5:6-21).

The eleven pipers piping symbolize the eleven faithful Apostles: Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Simon son of James.

Finally, the twelve drummers drumming are the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles’ Creed:

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son Our Lord.

He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.

He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead.

On the third day he rose again. He is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

The Holy Catholic Church,

The communion of saints,

The forgiveness of sins,

The resurrection of the body,

And life everlasting.




2 Responses to “The Twelve Days of Christmas”

  1. Teresa August 12, 2008 at 8:59 pm #

    This is actually just a myth (I’m Catholic too :))
    The truth is that the song is probably of French origin. The most notable source is the prestigious New Oxford Book of Carols which not only cites the French roots of the song, but says it is based on a game that children would play on the Twelfth Night, the eve of Epiphany. In the game, each child would have to try to remember and recite the objects that were said by a previous child. If successful, the child would add another object to the list for the next contestant to recite. If not, the child dropped out. The game would continue until there was a winner.

    There are also other problems with the catechism theory. The assumption behind it is that the song allowed Catholics to secretly embrace their beliefs behind the backs of non-Catholic Christian leaders during a time when being a practicing Catholic was against the law, for example under Anglican rule. None of the doctrines said to be represented in the Twelve Days of Christmas, however, was different from the beliefs of Anglicans or even Presbyterians. There is also the question that if the song was that important for teaching or remembering doctrine, why was it associated only with Christmas? One final note is that the first printed version of the song is said to be in the childrens book “Mirth Without Mischief” published in 1780 and that describes the song in similar terms as the Oxford Book of Carols.

  2. canadiancatholicblog August 22, 2008 at 10:23 pm #

    Hi Teresa,

    Thank you for your comment. I had intended to reply sooner, though I just moved across Canada to Windsor, Ontario, and I had been waiting to set up a web connection there. I’ve begun a one-year novitiate with the Congregation of St. Basil (Basilian Fathers), and I’m studying to become a priest in this Order.

    As for this post, I wrote it after hearing about the origin of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ on the radio while driving home from work one day. It was an interesting discussion that I thought would make a good blog article, too, so I posted it. I make no claim to complete factual accuracy in the post, and I recognize that there are many theories as to where the song came from, although I apologize for being unclear at the time about whether this was fact or myth. This article is more than two years old, and my writing has changed since then as I acquire more knowledge in some areas.

    Indeed, as you have written, evidence suggests that the song did not come from pre-Catholic Emancipation England, but from elsewhere. Interestingly, you use the word ‘myth’ to describe the account of the song’s origin that I posted. From Greek, ‘mythos’ refers to details put together to tell a story. Therefore, a ‘myth’ is not necessarily false; a story may have true and made-up parts, or exaggerations of truth. Catholicism has had many myths over time. For example, the Holy Shroud of Turin has been scientifically dated as being more recent than the time of Jesus (though some do not accept the dating techniques as entirely accurate, either, and there’s always room for divine intervention…). Also, it is doubtful but possible that the Holy House of Loreto was actually flown from Nazareth to Loreto by angels. Biblical myths abound, from the Creation stories in Genesis to Noah’s Ark to the Tower of Babel. Jesus Himself spoke of a mustard seed being the smallest seed in the world. As God, Jesus must have known that orchids would eventually be discovered that had smaller seeds. Jesus wasn’t lying, but was merely trying to tell a story while accomodating what His audience knew.

    Devotions still exist in Catholicism and in other faiths to events or stories that are not entirely factual. The role of religious devotion isn’t the same as that of science, therefore. Religion brings people closer to God; it tells us how to go to Heaven, as Galileo said, not necessarily how the heavens go.

    Thanks for your comment. It is much appreciated.


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