Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
One of my favorite Christmas carols growing up was The Twelve Days of Christmas, but as I grew into an adult, the song made less and less sense. I noticed several problems. Why twelve days? Growing up Protestant, wasn’t it generally accepted that Christmas was, like, 24 days long? And above all, I had an issue with the fact that we were singing over and over each year about a woman who clearly had a hoarding problem. “Five golden rings? Is this really necessary?” is all I could think. The song that seemed like it was all about getting things, less about giving things, and more about worldly gifts than the real gift of the season: Jesus Christ.
Sense an epiphany coming? Yes, that was a dad joke. (Christmas is twelve days long, beginning with Christmas day and ending with the Feast of the Epiphany). But really, someone explained to me a rather convincing hidden meaning behind the twelve gifts. The story goes that the twelve days of gifts are symbols for catechetical learning, particularly aimed at children hoping to learn their catechism, but also serves adults in the realities of the Christian Faith. The hidden meanings are:
- 2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments
- 3 French Hens = Faith, hope, and charity, as the principle theological virtues
- 4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels
- 5 Golden Rings = The first five books of the Old Testament, the “Pentateuch,” which gives the history of man’s fall from grace
- 6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation (highlighting life)
- 7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
- 8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
- 9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
- 10 Lords A-leaping = the Ten Commandments
- 11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
- 12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed
And the “partridge in a pear tree”? Jesus Christ as symbolically represented by a mother partridge protecting her helpless nestlings. Luke 13:34 recounts the words of Christ:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!
It helps resolve the question of why someone would need six geese, but is it true? Was this song created to have a symbol reference point teaching on God’s interactions with man? Sadly, for now, there’s no evidence to support the claim. Pick a number and an object, and there’s probably some way to relate it to the Bible. In fact, early versions of the song contain completely different gifts in number: boats, bears, and others.
But really, who cares. This interpretation gives the song significantly more meaning that does its shell of secular gift-giving. And who knows, maybe, originating in the 18th century when the West was comprehensively more Christianized, these lyrics became the norm for this very reason: they better point to the ‘reason for the season’ than boats, bears, and other objects. I say, forget Snopes and all those looking for reasons not to trust this origin story. If something helps a Christian learn and understand the Faith and does no harm to dogma and worship, it only benefits the believer. So, have at it: if the Twelve Days of Christmas helps you and your children learn about Jesus and the Bible, then the merrier you will be if you judiciously use these “hidden meanings.”