Do You Know What this Classic Christmas Carol Really Means?

Sara and Justin Kraft

Do You Know What this Classic Christmas Carol Really Means?

To our ears, the familiar Christmas carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” seems to be a merry carol we sing (and in our home we use it to help our three year old learn to count).  However, its origin is something more out of a spy movie than a child’s imagination. The song was composed in England during a time of great persecution for Catholics. King Henry the VIII, the once proclaimed defender of the faith had a problem. He had united the kingdom of England but had no heirs. Having already been granted an annulment from his first wife, he had married Queen Catherine in hopes of generating a male heir to the throne. However, after a series of lost children, Henry was left with no male heir to the throne. Therefore, he decided to take matters into his own hands. He decided to dispose of Queen Catherine and marry his mistress Anne Boleyn.  The only flaw in his plan was that he was already married. Knowing the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage forbade divorce, King Henry declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England.  This placed himself in direct opposition to the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church and King Henry promptly granted himself the divorce. 

He also launched a great persecution of Catholics seizing the property and often killing (on the basis of treason) anyone who opposed him. No one was immune, including St. Thomas Moore, the former Chancellor of England and personal friend of King Henry who was first imprisoned and then later beheaded. In one generation the Catholic Church in England was decimated. Between 1558 and 1829, Catholics in England were prohibited by law from ANY practice (either private or public) of their faith. (Catholic News Agency

The conditions for Catholics were horrendous. Priests were forced to leave England and forbidden to return with the penalty of death for doing so (Father Edward T. Dowling). Catholic faithful risked their lives to practice the faith. 

The story is told of one priest who was almost caught in a surprise raid. He had just time to squeeze into his hole before the police broke in on the family. The police had obviously received a tip because they went right to the fireplace where the priest’s hole was located. But try as they might, they couldn’t find the entrance. Then in their frustration they ordered a fire to be lit to drive out the priest. When he didn’t emerge, because to do so would subject the host family to prison or death, they ordered more logs on the fire. Eventually, all were driven from the room by the intense heat and the police left in disgust. The family rushed to get the priest out of the hole but he was already dead, baked alive. He gave his life under cruel circumstances to save those whom he had come to serve. And he was only one of many.” (Father Edward T. Dowling)

If you are intrigued by the historical context, I suggest reading the novel Come Rack! Come Rope! by Robert Hugh Benson or the biography Edmond Campion: A Life by Evelyn Waugh.

The Twelve Days of Christmas!

It was in this context that the carol the Twelve Days of Christmas was composed. Do you know what this classic Christmas carol really means? Because having possession of anything in writing indicating practice of the Catholic faith could get you imprisoned or killed, Catholics in England devised catechism songs to help young Catholics learn the faith.  More than a mere children’s song, it was composed as a secret code to aid Catholics in the practice of the faith. The song had the surface meaning, as well as the hidden meaning known only to Catholics. Words which seem nonsensical to us are actually rich with secret meaning for those who know how to decode it.  

The first three verses of the song are as follows:

On the First day of Christmas my true love sent to me a Partridge in a Pear Tree.

On the Second day of Christmas my true love sent to me Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.

On the Third day of Christmas my true love sent to me Three French Hens, Two Turtle Doves, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree. 

The rest of the song follows a similar pattern, with the verses getting increasingly longer.

Decoding the Twelve Days 

(Explanation adapted from Ann Ball’s Handbook of Catholic Sacramentals): 

The symbols in the song mean: 

The true love is not an earthly suitor, rather it is Jesus himself.
The “me” referred to in the song is every baptized person.
A Partridge in a Pear Tree is Christ because the Partridge is often known to protect its young by sacrificing its own life.

Two Turtle Doves stand for the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.

The three French Hens stand for the Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity.

The Four Calling Birds are for the four Gospels/Evangelists of the New Testament which are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They stand throughout history calling us to return to the Lord.

The Five Golden Rings are for the Five Books of the Old Testament, also known as the "Pentateuch.”   These five books give the history of man's fall from grace and the great love of God in sending our Savior Jesus. They reveal the beginning of God’s plan for our redemption and foreshadow the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Six Geese A-laying represented the six days of creation, where God made the earth before resting on the seventh day.

The Seven Swans A-swimming stand for both the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and the seven sacraments.  The gifts of the Holy Spirit are:  Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, and Fear of the Lord. The seven sacraments are: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Holy Orders, Marriage, and Anointing of the Sick.

The Eight Maids A-milking symbolize the eight beatitudes:  (Matthew 5:3-10)
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land. 
Blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted. 
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill. 
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. 
Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God. 
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. 
Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

Nine Ladies Dancing stand for the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit.  Those are:  Charity, Joy, Peace, Patience [Forbearance], Goodness [Kindness], Mildness, Fidelity, Modesty, Continence [Chastity].

10 Lords A-leaping teach the Ten Commandments.  These are:  

1.     I am the LORD your God: you shall not have strange Gods before me.
2.    You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.
3.    Remember to keep holy the Lord’s Day.
4.    Honor your father and your mother.
5.    You shall not kill.
6.    You shall not commit adultery.
7.    You shall not steal.
8.    You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
9.    You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.
10.    You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods.  

Eleven Pipers Piping stand for the eleven faithful apostles.  These are Peter, Andrew, James the Greater, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the Less, Jude, and Simon.

Twelve Drummers Drumming stands for the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed.  They are:
1. I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
2. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
3. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
4. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
5. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again.
6. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
7. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
8. I believe in the Holy Spirit,
9. the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints,
10. the forgiveness of sins,
11. the resurrection of the body,
12. and the life everlasting.

How to respond!

This Christmas season let us listen to this hymn with new ears. Perhaps, we can even use it as the Christians in England did all those many years. I suggest that starting December 25th, we ponder the mysteries of this song. Each day, for twelve days, examine one verse and take 5-10 minutes to reflect on the symbolism to see what you can learn about God and our Catholic faith.

Did you know about the meaning behind this classic Carol? 


Header Image: The Twelve Days of Christmas song poster/Xavier Romero-Frias