The Truth About “The Twelve Days of Christmas”

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Unless you’ve been channeling Patrick from SpongeBob SquarePants and have been living under a rock for your entire life, you’ve probably heard the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. If your Catholic, you might’ve also heard that the song was written in code for Catholics at a time when Oliver Cromwell was persecuting Catholics in England and Ireland.

Symbolism in the song

The symbolism is as follows:

1 Partridge in a pear tree = Christ the 1 true king
2 turtle doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French hens = the 3 Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity
4 Colly Birds (Blackbirds) = the 4 Gospels and 4 Evangelists
5 Gold Rings = the first 5 Books of the Old Testament (the Torah)
6 Geese a-laying = 6 days of Creation
7 Swans a-swimming = the 7 Sacraments and the 7 Gifts of the Holy Ghost
8 Maids a-milking = 8 beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the 9 Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords a-leaping = 10 Commandments
11 Pipers Piping = 11 Faithful Apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the 12 points of doctrine in the Creed

Some may say 3 French hens are the 3 wise men as well, but this has been the traditional interpretation of it. It sounds pretty great, right? I mean, some of those make total sense.

The true story

The first day of Christmas is Christmas Day, the day we celebrate the birth of the child Christ. The six geese laying eggs can totally be symbolic of the 6 days of Creation. The eight maids milking can be seen as the spiritual, life-giving nourishment of the Beatitudes. I can see the 11 pipers piping being the 11 apostles who went out to preach the Word. It adds up!

But… here’s the thing: it’s not actually a Catholic song or a song written for oppressed Catholics! Say it ain’t so! Sadly, these are two very real things that were morphed into one and then passed down through the generations.

The original “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was written in France. An English translation first appeared in a children’s book titled “Mirth Without Mischief” published in 1780. While we Catholics definitely celebrate the 12 days of Christmas, the song was not written for our poor brothers and sisters who endured some of the worst persecution in England.

I hope I didn’t burst your bubble about this song but it’s something we should know before passing along the wrong tale to the next generation. We have such wonderful traditions and songs for the short Christmastide season, one less song won’t hurt us. And, bonus, no one said you can’t still sing it and teach it to your kids. Just be careful not to say it’s a Catholic song in disguise.

Do you know of any other Christmas traditions that aren’t true?

Featured image: Pixabay. Free for commercial use. No attribution required.

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