‘The 12 Days of Christmas’: Underground Catechism?

Did Jesuit priests in the days of Queen Elizabeth I write ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’ to help persecuted Catholics memorize their faith?

(photo: Register Files)

If you hang in traditional Catholic circles long enough, sooner or later you’ll hear the story of the Catholic origin of the “12 Days of Christmas.”

Here is how Father Hal Stockert, who popularized this story, put it in a short 1982 composition called “Origin of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’: An Underground Catechism”:

To most it’s a delightful nonsense rhyme set to music. But it had a quite serious purpose when it was written…

Catholics in England during the period 1558 to 1829, when Parliament finally emancipated Catholics in England, were prohibited from ANY practice of their faith by law - private OR public. It was a crime to BE a Catholic.

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” was written in England as one of the “catechism songs” to help young Catholics learn the tenets of their faith - a memory aid, when to be caught with anything in writing indicating adherence to the Catholic faith could not only get you imprisoned, it could get you hanged, or shortened by a head - or hanged, drawn and quartered…

The songs gifts are hidden meanings to the teachings of the faith.

According to this narrative, each of the gifts mentioned in the verses — the 12 drummers drumming, 11 pipers piping, and so forth — represents some point of Catholic belief or tradition: the 12 drummers are the 12 articles of the Apostle’s Creed; the 10 lords a-leaping are the 10 Commandments, and so forth.

In the 1990s the story of the song’s religious origins spread far and wide on the Internet. In 1999, the Orthodox religion journalist Terry Mattingly tracked the story back to Fr. Stockert, who told him that he encountered this information in old letters from Irish priests. (Since then, Fr. Stockert says, his notes were lost in a flooding accident in a church basement.)

Responding to skeptical takes from Snopes and others, Fr. Stockert admitted the story probably includes “elements of legend,” but added that “if it is a legend, it’s a legend that dates back to the days of Queen Elizabeth.” In 2011 Mattingly revisited the topic, pronouncing it an open question.

These nuances are lost in most Catholic sources disseminating the “Catholic origins” story, which present it as historical fact.

Are there reasons to be skeptical? Yes.

  • First, some background: “The 12 Days of Christmas” was first published around 1780. While the song is probably much older than that, no known evidence supports Fr. Stockert’s claim that it goes back as far as Elizabeth I (who reigned from 1558 to 1601). Furthermore, the song appears to have French origins, making a historical origin in English persecution unlikely.
  • Other than the otherwise unknown clerical letters Fr. Stockert credits with his discovery, there appears to be no evidence supporting the song’s “Catholic origins,” or even the idea that the song was ever read that way. If persecuted English Catholics ever sang the song this way, the story was not passed down in any way that has been discovered by anyone other than Fr. Stockert.
  • The “Catholic origins” interpretation is implausible on its face for a number of reasons. Here are some:
    • Virtually all of the ideas connected with the 12 gifts were not only totally uncontroversial in Anglican England, but were held in common by Catholics and Anglicans.
    • These include: the Ten Commandments; the nine fruits of the Spirit; the eight beatitudes; the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit; the six days of creation; the five books of the Pentateuch; the four Gospels; the three theological virtues; and the Old and New Testaments.

      There would have been no reason for Catholics in Protestant England to be secretive or furtive about any of this. Virtually everyone professed these doctrines; they were all endorsed by the established Anglican church.

      In fact, of all the proposed interpretations Fr. Stockert gives, only one — the seven sacraments — was actually a particularly Catholic belief that could possibly have been dangerous at any point during anti-Catholic persecutions.

      Because Fr. Stockert’s interpretation doubles up interpretations of some numbers, that’s actually less than one out of 12. Fr. Stockert names at least 15 or 16 different ideas in connection with the 12 days. So over 93 percent of the ideas Fr. Stockert invokes were entirely uncontroversial.

      The idea of going to the trouble to encode beliefs that were openly professed in every Anglican parish on every Sunday makes no sense whatsoever.

    • Just as notably, virtually every idea of Catholic theology that was controverted by Anglicans is absent from the “underground catechism” interpretations.
    • For example, the Anglican “39 Articles of Religion” include the affirmation that “The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England.” If any one Catholic belief was most hotly disputed by the Anglican establishment and liable to lead to persecution, it would be the doctrine of the Petrine primacy of the Pope, the bishop of Rome, and his universal jurisdiction over the universal Church.

      If, then, any Catholic doctrine were a prime candidate for an “underground catechism,” it would be this doctrine (along with the indefectability of the faith of the Church of Rome, against which the 39 Articles declare, “As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.”)

      Yet the “Catholic origins” interpretation of “The 12 Days of Christmas” makes no mention of the papacy or of the indefectability of the Roman Church.

      Likewise, there is no mention of the sacrifice of the Mass, which the 39 Articles label “blasphemous fables and dangerous deceits.” Nor do we hear about the “Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints,” all of which the 39 Articles declare “repugnant to the Word of God.”

      Interpreted as an “underground catechism,” “The 12 Days of Christmas” is a double failure: Not only does it pointlessly encode beliefs that were entirely uncontroversial, it ignores virtually all the beliefs that one would actually want to encode for covert catechesis.

    • There appears to be little or no evident meaning, and thus little or no mnemonic or memory-aiding value, to the imagery of the lyrics as regards the Catholic interpretations.
    • For example, we have, on the one hand, the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit, the eight beatitudes, and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit; and, on the other, ladies dancing, maids a-milking and swans a-swimming.

      Is there anything in these images more suggestive of these ideas than any other? Are ladies dancing more like the fruits of the Spirit than the gifts? Does it help to have eight maids a-milking rather than six, or nine ladies dancing rather than seven?

      In some cases, admittedly, we might be able to make connections between the images and the proposed meanings — if we are clever enough.

      For example, two turtle-doves could be said to signify the Old and New Testaments, inasmuch as two doves satisfied the sacrifice for purification after childbirth according to Leviticus 12 (in the Old Testament) — and Joseph and Mary actually offered this sacrifice in Luke 2 (in the New). I’m not sure this connection would help anyone who didn’t already know the Old and New Testaments quite well, but there it is.

      Even better, the six geese a-laying might remind us of the six days of creation, inasmuch as the geese are involved in a creative process that recalls the Lord’s command in Genesis 1 to each creature to produce offspring according to their kinds.

      But how are three French hens any more or less like the three theological virtues than three of anything else? Or how are four “colly birds” (i.e., black-feathered birds) more like the four Gospels or the four Evangelists than four of anything else? (In Christian art, blackbirds often represent temptation or the devil, making them an odd symbol for the Gospels or the Evangelists.)

      Once the four “colly birds” became “calling birds,” it might be possible to interpret “calling” as “communicating,” thereby evoking the message of the four Evangelists. But since the “calling birds” version of the lyrics isn’t attested until well after the 1829 Catholic Relief Act, we have no reason to think that interpretation would have been possible until after Catholics were no longer persecuted in England — even if the Four Gospels or Evangelists were a particularly Catholic idea, which of course they weren’t.

      The only image in the song for which Fr. Stockert proposes a specific image-based interpretation is the partridge, which he says represents Christ. According to Fr. Stockert, the mother partridge

      feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings, much in memory of the expression of Christ’s sadness over the fate of Jerusalem: “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…”

      This edifying interpretation, though, ignores the more usual negative associations of the partridge, linked to Jeremiah 17:11:

      Like the partridge that gathers a brood which she did not hatch,
      so is he who gets riches but not by right;
      in the midst of his days they will leave him,
      and at his end he will be a fool.

      In keeping with this verse, the partridge in Christian art is often a symbol of deceit, theft and the devil. Not always; the partridge can be used as a positive symbol of the Church or of truth. Still, if the line were intended to evoke Christ comparing himself to a hen gathering her chicks, as Fr. Stockert’s account suggests, why not just use a hen in the first place? 

    • Compounding the previous point, the specific imagery in the version of the song that Fr. Stockert comments on was not standardized throughout Catholic persecution; many textual variants are attested.
    • For example, the final present is variously attested as “12 ships a-sailing,” “12 bulls a-roaring,” “12 mares a-pulling,” “12 bells a-ringing,” and “12 cocks a-crowing.”

      Other variant presents include “hares a-running,” “calves a-calving,” “ladies singing,” and “steerts a-running” (I have not been able to discover what a “steert” might be, unless it is a typo for “steer”). My favorite variant is another alternate line for the “4 colley birds,” which was sung on May 2, 1913 by 73-year-old Mrs. Hezeltine of Camborne, Cornwall, as “4 Cornish birds.”

      The inconsistency of the imagery reinforces the arbitrariness of the Catholic interpretations, which are really just based on the numbers 1 through 12.

      The fact that the numbers 1 through 12 can each be associated with some idea or principle in the Catholic faith means that literally any counting song could be given a similar Catholic “interpretation,” none necessarily more or less plausible or probable than any other.

    • Finally, as a Christmas song, “The 12 Days of Christmas” was sung, at most, a few weeks out of the year. Thus, literally any nursery-rhyme counting song, which could be sung year-round, would be a more effective “underground catechism.”

The bottom line is that the notion that “The 12 Days of Christmas” was written as an underground catechism, or even interpreted and used as one during anti-Catholic persecutions in England, just isn’t plausible.

The more persuasive explanation is that the interpretations have been rather arbitrarily hung on the song lyrics, much as patristic and medieval allegorists were able to find whatever meaning they sought in the imagery of Scripture. (For example, Origen believed scripture contained three levels of meaning, corresponding to body, soul, and spirit — and connected this to the three decks of Noah’s ark!)

The popularity of this story among Catholics is likely due to two factors: the appeal of claiming a bit of secular Christmas popular culture for religious purposes and the attractiveness and popularity of stories of Catholics enduring persecution. (Fr. Stockert’s 1982 composition goes on at some length about drawing and quartering.)

As such, there may be no very great harm in the story, except insofar as its popularity depends on and fosters a credulous, uncritical mentality — the same sort of mentality that spreads all kinds of dubious or false stories and memes, some more harmful than others.

Some Catholics may prefer the “Catholic origins” legend and resent or dispute efforts to cross-examine it, but habitual critical thinking skills, an attentiveness to questions of evidence, and a healthy sense of how folklore and legends are shaped and spread will serve us better in the long run.