That popular bit of folklore pops up every year around this time, to wit:
The songs gifts are hidden meanings to the teachings of the faith. The “true love” mentioned in the song doesn’t refer to an earthly suitor, it refers to God Himself. The “me” who receives the presents refers to every baptized person. The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge which 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…” The other symbols mean the following: 2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments 3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues 4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists 5 Golden Rings = The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the “Pentateuch”, which gives the history of man’s fall from grace. 6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation 7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments 8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes 9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit 10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments 11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles 12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed
You may be surprised to learn there’s no historical evidence at all to support any of this.
Two very large red flags indicate that the claim about the “secret” origins of the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is nothing more than a fanciful tale, similar to the many apocryphal “hidden meanings” of various nursery rhymes:
- There is absolutely no documentation or supporting evidence for this claim whatsoever, other than mere repetition of the claim itself.
- And, the claim appears to date only to the 1990s, marking it as likely an invention of modern day speculation rather than historical fact.
Where did it originate?
This piece is often attributed to Fr. Hal Stockert, and in his explanation on a page from the web site of the Catholic Information Network, he wrote:I found this information while I was researching for an entirely unrelated project which required me to go to the Latin texts of the sources pertinent to my research. Among those primary documents there were letters from Irish priests, mostly Jesuits, writing back to the motherhouse at Douai-Rheims, in France, mentioning this purely as an aside, and not at all as part of the main content of the letters.So where is the information gleaned from these letters? As Fr. Stockert explained to syndicated religion writer Terry Mattingly in 1999:“I’ve got all kinds of people writing me demanding references for my work,” he said. “I wish I could give them what they want, but all of my notes were ruined when our church had a plumbing leak and the basement flooded.” Meanwhile, he said, his copy of the original article is on “a computer floppy disk that is so old that nobody has a machine that can read it, anymore.”What we do know is that the twelve days of Christmas in the song are the twelve days between the birth of Christ (Christmas, December 25) and the coming of the Magi (Epiphany, January 6). Although the specific origins of the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” are not known, it possibly began as a Twelfth Night “memory-and-forfeits” game in which the leader recited a verse, each of the players repeated the verse, the leader added another verse, and so on until one of the players made a mistake, with the player who erred having to pay a penalty, such as a offering up a kiss or a sweet. This is how the song was presented in its earliest known printed version, in the 1780 children’s book Mirth Without Mischief. (The song is apparently much older than this printed version, but we do not currently know how much older.) Textual evidence indicates that the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was not English in origin, but French. Three French versions of the song are known, and items mentioned in the song itself (the partridge, for example, which was not introduced to England from France until the late 1770s) are indicative of a French origin.
There’s much more, and it lays out the fascinating history behind the song. Read it all.