Every year after Christmas, someone makes a post on Facebook that shows up in my news feed proclaiming that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” song is a 16th century underground Catholic catechism used in England. It is my sad duty to correct this error, based upon both the documentation we possess for the song and even the code it is supposed to represent.
While it’s true that Catholics had to practice their faith secretly for centuries in England, they did not need hidden codes in Christmas songs to learn their faith. Through the missionary priests, the books they already had, and the books and pamphlets printed and distributed secretly, catechesis continued during the recusant and penal eras.
The Date of the Song
The first publication of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” in England dates to 1780 in a children’s book titled Mirth without Mischief with the full of title of “The Twelve Days of Christmas sung at King Pepin's Ball." The true love in the cumulative list of gifts sends them, not gives them as we usually sing and five calling birds are five colly (black) birds. There have been other versions of the song through the years with different sets of gifts, but the accumulation of gifts has always matched the number of days between Christmas and Epiphany.
Twelfth Night, as memorialized by Shakespeare’s play, is the last great celebration of Christmas-tide with singing, dancing and games. This song “at King Pepin’s Ball” was part of a game of forfeits—if you couldn’t remember and repeat how the gifts of the twelve days of Christmas accumulated correctly, you lost. You’d have to give something, a kiss or a treat, and that was your forfeit. If you gave an object, like a ring or ribbon, you’d get it back the next day.
So the best information we have about the printing and performance of the song dates from the 18th century; it’s never mentioned among any Recusant sources that we have found thus far; and it was a game at parties, like charades.
Decoding the Catechetical Code
The deeper problem is that, as those who argue for the catechism code present the interpretation, most of the gift’s hidden meanings would have been accepted by both Catholics and Anglicans during this period. For example, this Catholic News Agency (CNA) story presents a guide to interpreting the code:
The "True Love" one hears in the song is not a smitten boy or girlfriend but Jesus Christ, because truly Love was born on Christmas Day. The partridge in the pear tree also represents Him because that bird is willing to sacrifice its life if necessary to protect its young by feigning injury to draw away predators. [Catholics and Anglicans agree]
A more Catholic image, however, would be the pelican, which pierces its breast to feed its young as Jesus was pierced on the Cross and gives us His Body and Blood in the Eucharist.
The two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments [Catholics and Anglicans agree]
The three French hens stood for faith, hope and love. [Catholics and Anglicans agree]
The four calling [or colly] birds were the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. [Catholics and Anglicans agree]
The five golden rings represented the first five books of the Old Testament, which describe man's fall into sin and the great love of God in sending a Savior. [Catholics and Anglicans agree]
The six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation. [Catholics and Anglicans agree]
Seven swans a-swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit-----Prophesy, Serving, Teaching, Exhortation, Contribution, Leadership and Mercy.
If this truly were a Catholic Catechism, the Seven Swans A-Swimming should have represented the Seven Sacraments and the Seven Sacraments only (some other interpretations list the sacraments too but not exclusively). The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England defined only two Sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion, so this would have been an important point of distinction between Catholics and Anglicans. The traditional Catholic list of gifts is different too: wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, fortitude, piety and fear of the Lord.
The eight maids a-milking were the eight beatitudes [Catholics and Anglicans agree that there are eight beatitudes in the Gospel According to St. Matthew]
Nine ladies dancing were the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit-----Charity, Joy, Peace, Patience [Forbearance], Goodness [Kindness], Mildness, Fidelity, Modesty, Continence [Chastity].
The Catholic Church recognizes 12 Fruits of the Holy Spirit, not just nine: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Generosity, Gentleness, Faithfulness, Modesty, Self-control and Chastity, following the Vulgate text for Galatians 5: 22-23. As the CNA story tries to explain: “To fit the number scheme, when you reach number 9, representing the Fruits of the Holy Ghost, the originator combined 6 to make 3, taking the 6 fruits that were similar: the fruit in each parenthesis is the that was not named separately. There are actually Twelve Fruits of the Holy Ghost.” That’s confusing!
The 10 lords a-leaping were the Ten Commandments. [Catholics and Anglicans agree]
The 11 pipers piping stood for the 11 faithful Apostles. [Catholics and Anglicans agree]
This seems like filler, since the remaining Apostles chose Matthias as Judas Iscariot's replacement. This is not a particular point of Catholic doctrine; it’s part of the story of the Acts of the Apostles, spreading the Gospel after the Ascension of Our Lord. Every copy of the Holy Bible, Protestant or Catholic, would contain this story.
The twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in The Apostles' Creed. [Catholics and Anglicans agree]Faith of Our Fathers
So as a catechetical aid “The Twelve Days of Christmas”—as decoded above—would not have served to teach Catholics anything distinctive about Church teaching. The source of this legend of the code dates from the 20th century; it doesn’t come from any contemporary documented source or even from any of the great modern Recusant era scholars like Fathers Philip Caraman, SJ or Godfrey Anstruther, OP.
While it’s good to remember what Catholics suffered in England from the reigns of Elizabeth I to George IV, this purported secret catechism is not a historically accurate artifact.
Merry Christmas and Happy Epiphany—anyway!