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Songs of Christmas: The 12 Days of Christmas

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Songs of Christmas: The Twelve Days of Christmas

December 30, 2021

While most of us consider the weeks leading up to Christmas as the Christmas season, the traditional Christian calendar refers to that time period as “Advent,” and the days after Christmas are considered the Christmas season. That season (called “Christmastide”) spans the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany (January 6), the day to remember the arrival of the magi). Recognizing the importance of the twelve days following Christmas helps explain the concept for the song titled “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Although that song is not technically a “Christmas carol,” I thought it would be fun to explore some of the background of that song since we are in the midst of these “days of Christmas.” 

The Disputed Origins of this Song
A common explanation for the origin of this song is that it was a catechism (teaching) that was used by Catholics in England when they were unable to practice their faith (1558-1829). Each gift has a symbolic meaning and is a way of teaching the Christian faith. The “true love” was God Himself. 

Partridge in a Pear Tree = Jesus
2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity (known as the Theological Virtues)
4 Calling Birds = the four gospels 
5 Golden Rings = The first five books of the Old Testament, the “Pentateuch”
6 Geese a Laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans a Swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit or the seven sacraments
8 Maids a Milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine fruits of the Spirit
10 Lords a Leaping = the Ten Commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points in the Apostle’s Creed

While this is interesting, there seems to be a number of problems with this theory which many have noted in recent years. One interesting argument against this explanation is that none of the proposed symbolic meanings are beliefs or practices that distinguish Protestants and Catholics as all seem to be believed by both church branches. (The only exception is the number seven if seen as the seven sacraments, but as noted, it could refer to the gifts of the Holy Spirit.) Therefore, it would be unclear why they had to be secretly embedded in this song. Moreover, I am not sure if anything in the various details really offers a connection between the gift and the symbolism. For example, do milking maids really remind you of the beatitudes, or do french hens resemble faith, hope, and love? I also found that there are different versions of the gifts, so it is not clear if there is a specific connection between the gifts and the teachings. In addition, the fact that I could recall this story but had to look up the various symbols shows that these might not be great mnemonic devices! The teaching seems more in the numbers than the gifts themselves, and one could simply find something to fit each number if they wanted to invest the song with some teaching value. These connections thus might not be the origins of the song, but rather a later use for it (in fact, the theory that this teaches the Christian faith seems to be something that started in the 20th century). Finally, no direct evidence for this view has been found. Father Hal Stokkert, the man who seems to have popularized this view in an article published in 1982, noted that he found it in letters of old Irish priests but these letters have since been destroyed in a flood. It appears he made a proposal that then essentially went “viral” (it came before the internet but the internet helped spread it). However, other internet articles (such as snopes.com that looks at “urban legends”) have raised important questions about this view.

If The Twelve Days of Christmas wasn’t a catechism song to teach kids the Christian faith, then where did it come from? It is not exactly clear — it might just have been a children’s song that was sung as part of a game (a song game) during Christmastide and may have been adapted from a French tune. Why these gifts then? Even after doing some research, the reason for the gifts is still unclear. Sorry I couldn’t be of more help!

The Unending Significance of Christmas
Even if we are unable to determine the exact origins of these strange gifts, we do know the reason for 12 days, and I think this song can point us to something important about Christmas.  Christmas Day is not the end of the Christmas season, but actually the beginning of it. Radio stations often begin playing Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving and seem to either stop the day after Christmas or on New Year’s Eve. Similarly, people often put up their decorations right after Thanksgiving and will put them away at some point between December 26 and New Years Day. Let us not just think about Christmas in the days leading up to the holiday, but also in the days that follow. There is no obligation to celebrate Epiphany, but perhaps this holiday could serve as a marker for us in some way to help us continue to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It is not necessary to give anyone a partridge in a pear tree, but keep passing along the great joy that comes because Jesus has been born!

Questions about the Bible or theology? Email them to Pastor Brian at Theology@WeAreFaith.org. You can also request to receive weekly emails with our blog posts by filling out the information on the right side.

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