The Meaning of the Christmas Song “12 Days of Christmas”

It’s just barely the beginning of December, and already I’ve seen three posts that claim that the song “The 12 Days of Christmas” is a Christian code for Biblical teachings. This has been going around online for about 25 years. Just because someone posts it and insists that they found it on the Internet doesn’t make it true. And just because you want it to be true doesn’t mean it is.

This is one of the many posts I’ve seen that suggest, even insist, that it’s a Christian thing, and if you ask me a story this gruesome shouldn’t be taught to anyone, but especially children:

“You’re all familiar with the Christmas song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” I think. To most it’s a delightful nonsense rhyme set to music. But it had a quite serious purpose when it was written.

It is a good deal more than just a repetitious melody with pretty phrases and a list of strange gifts.

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, a rather peculiar and ghastly punishment I’m not aware was ever practiced anywhere else. Hanging, drawing and quartering involved hanging a person by the neck until they had almost, but not quite, suffocated to death; then the party was taken down from the gallows, and disemboweled while still alive; and while the entrails were still lying on the street, where the executioners stomped all over them, the victim was tied to four large farm horses, and literally torn into five parts – one to each limb and the remaining torso.

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”

Snopes says: “Two common forms of modern folklore are claims that familiar old bits of rhyme and song (such as the nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosie”) encode “hidden” meanings which have been passed along for centuries, and claims that common objects of secular origin — particularly objects associated with Christmas (such as the candy cane saying candy canes were made in the shape of the letter J for Jesus and it was white and red for purity and the blood of Christ. But it’s not true. The candy cane was designed by a minister to keep kids quiet during church and it started out as just white and was designed to look like shepherd’s crooks. Then someone thought it would look great with red stripes for contrast. But I can see why Christians love the other stories.) — were deliberately created to embody symbols of Christian faith. Here we have an article that combines both these forms and posits that a mirthful Christmas festival song about romantic gift-giving actually originated as a coded catechism used by persecuted Catholics.

Some versions of this piece do not specifically mention Catholicism or England. In these alternate versions the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is said to have been developed by Christians who could not open practice their faith because they lived in societies where Christianity was forbidden. Locating a place in the western world where the practice of Christianity was banned during the last several centuries is difficult enough, but trying to discern the usefulness of a Christmas song as a method of preserving tenets of Christianity in a society where the practice of Christianity itself was outlawed is truly a mind bender, since in such a society all facets of Christmas celebrations would surely be banned as well. Therefore, our discussion here will concentrate on the claim that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was the creation of Catholics living England after the Anglican Reformation.

The history of the development of the Anglican Church and the relationship between Anglicans and Catholics in England over the subsequent centuries is a complex subject which could not be done justice in anything less than a lengthy and detailed discourse. 

In short, the era under discussion begins with King Henry VIII’s (1509-1547) break with the Catholic Church in Rome and his establishment of the Anglican Church. In 1558, Henry’s Catholic daughter Mary I died, and her non-Catholic half-sister Elizabeth I took the throne; the following year, the Act of Uniformity abolished “the old worship,” and the open practice of Catholicism was forbidden by law until Parliament passed the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829. However, it is not accurate to say that, without exception, anyone caught practicing Catholicism (or possessing material indicating adherence to Catholicism) at any time during this 270-year period was immediately imprisoned or executed. The state’s toleration of Catholicism waxed and waned with the political exigencies of the times, and during some periods, Catholics were treated more leniently than others. (As an interesting side note, we should mention that during the Puritan Commonwealth of 1649-1660, legislation banning the celebration of Christmas in England by anyone, Anglican or otherwise, was enacted, although these laws were overturned with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.) There is no substantive evidence to demonstrate that the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was created or used as a secret means of preserving tenets of the Catholic faith, or that this claim is anything but a fanciful modern day speculation, similar to the many apocryphal “hidden meanings” of various nursery rhymes. Moreover, several flaws in the explanation argue compellingly against it:

The key flaw in this theory is that the differences between the Anglican and Catholic churches were largely differences in emphasis and form which were extrinsic to scripture. Although Catholics and Anglicans used different English translations of the Bible (Douai-Reims and the King James version, respectively), all of the religious tenets supposedly preserved by the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (with the possible exception of the number of sacraments) were shared by Catholics and Anglicans alike: both groups’ Bibles included the Old and New Testaments, both contained the five books that form the Pentateuch, both had the Four Gospels, both included God’s creation of the universe in six days as described in Genesis, and both enumerated the Ten Commandments. A Catholic might need to be wary of being caught with a Douai-Reims Bible, but there was absolutely no reason why any Catholic would have to hide his knowledge of any of the concepts supposedly symbolized in “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” because these were basic articles of faith common to all denominations of Christianity. None of these items would distinguish a Catholic from a Protestant, and therefore none of them needed to be “secretly” encoded into song lest their mention betray one as a Catholic.

Conversely, none of the important differences that would obviously distinguish a Catholic from a Protestant is mentioned here. A Catholic would have good reason not to possess or reveal anything that would indicate his allegiance to the Pope or his participation in the sacrament of penance (also known as Confession), but nothing of that nature is encapsulated in the explanation of the symbolism supposedly to be found in the “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

If “The Twelve Days of Christmas” were really a song Catholics used “as memory aids to preserve the tenets of their faith” because “to be caught with anything in writing indicating adherence to the Catholic faith could get you imprisoned,” how was the essence of Catholicism passed from one generation to the next? The mere memorization of a song with coded references to “the Old and New Testaments” in no way preserves the contents of those testaments. How was this preservation of content accomplished if possessing the testaments in written form was forbidden?

Did Catholics memorize the entire contents of the Bible? Obviously not, and there was no reason to do so. Since Catholics and Anglicans both used the Old and New Testaments, possessing their contents in written form did not expose one as a Catholic, and thus there was no need to cloak common Biblical concepts through the use of mnemonic devices. There was no reason why “young Catholics” could not be openly taught about the Four Gospels or the eleven faithful apostles or the Ten Commandments.

The utility of a Christmas song as a surreptitious means of memorizing a catechism would be quite limited, as its use would obviously be restricted to Christmastime. How was the supposedly forbidden catechism taught to children throughout the rest of the year? Where are the other rhymes and songs with similar hidden meanings that Catholics would had to have used for their catechism throughout the rest of the year?

There are no obvious relationships between the concepts to be memorized and the symbols used to represent them in “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” In what way do “eight maids a-milking” remind one of the Eight Beatitudes? How are “nine ladies dancing” supposed to bring the Nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit to mind? (Yes, some interpreters have attempted to explain these relationships, but their explanations are so contrived and convoluted as to be beyond the grasp of the children who were supposed to be the primary beneficiaries of this alleged cathechism song.) Without any obvious relationships between the symbols and the concepts they symbolize, this song is no more useful as a “memory aid” than simply memorizing the numbers one through twelve would be.

As one would expect to find in a folkloric explanation (rather than a factual one), there is a great deal of variation in the list of religious tenets supposedly symbolized in the song. The three French hens represent the three “theological virtues” (faith, hope, and charity), or the Holy Trinity, or the three gifts the Magi brought for the infant Jesus. The four calling birds are the Four Gospels, or the four major Old Testament prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel), or the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. The five golden rings are the five books of the Pentateuch, or the five decades of the rosary, or the five obligatory sacraments of the Church. A song used as a “memory aid” would have a fairly standard, fixed form, not variation upon variation.

What little has been offered in support of this claim is decidedly unconvincing. 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 writes:

‘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.”

Fr. Stockert’s loss is unfortunate, but evidence that cannot be examined is not evidence.

Hugh D. McKellar took up the challenge in a 1994 journal article, in which he offered the following reasoning to demonstrate the existence of “catechism-songs” such as “The Twelve Days of Christmas”:

‘Cloaking potentially dangerous statements in a sort of code, and setting the result to music, was already no new thing. “Sing a song of sixpence” comments on the spoilation of England’s monasteries . . . [by] King Henry VIII . . . “Rock-a-bye, baby” summarizes the downfall in 1688 of King James II . . . “Ring around a rosy” recalls the Great Plague of 1665 . . . Why not, then, encode the basic tenets of the Catholic faith, devise a tune, and produce a song which would jog the memories of those in on the secret, but rouse no suspicion in outsiders? And so, though we have no idea when or where, catechism-songs were born.’

According to this flawed bit of reasoning, “we have no idea when or where catechism-songs were born,” but we can simply assume they existed because we know people coded “dangerous” messages in nursery rhymes, so there’s no reason why they couldn’t have hidden messages in Christmas songs as well. Therefore, we can also simply assume that Christmas songs with secretly coded catechisms existed, and that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was one of them. 

If the mile-wide gaps in logic (plastered over with nothing but unsupported assumptions) aren’t sufficient reason to dismiss this argument, then consider that it’s based on a completely erroneous premise (i.e., the notion that nursery rhymes such as the ones cited were used as vessels for “dangerous statements”).

The entry for “Sing a song of sixpence” in The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes notes:

Less entertaining are the stories giving the rhyme allegorical significance. Theories upon which too much ink has been expended [include] . . . that the blackbirds are the choirs of about-to-be-dissolved monasteries making a dainty pie for Henry . . . If any particular explanation is required of the rhyme the straightforward one that it is a description of a popular entertainment is the most probable.

And elsewhere on this site we explain in great detail why Ring Around the Rosie is not about the Black Plague. (One has to wonder why noting that the plague killed people was such a “potentially dangerous statement” that it had to be encoded in the first place.)

Apocryphal stories, no matter how earnestly cited, don’t constitute evidence either. With no real proof that “catechism-songs” existed in the first place, McKellar’s elaborate explanation of the song’s possible symbolism is nothing more than unfounded speculation.

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.

It is possible that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” has been confused with (or is a transformation of) a song called “A New Dial” (also known as “In Those Twelve Days”), which dates to at least 1625 and assigns religious meanings to each of the twelve days of Christmas (but not for the purposes of teaching a catechism). In a manner somewhat similar to the memory-and-forfeits performance of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” the song “A New Dial” was recited in a question-and-answer format:

What are they that are but one?

We have one God alone

In heaven above sits on His throne.

What are they which are by two?

Two testaments, the old and new,

We do acknowledge to be true.

What are they which are but three?

Three persons in the Trinity

Which make one God in unity.

What are they which are but four

Four sweet Evangelists there are,

Christ’s birth, life, death which do declare.

What are they which are but five?

Five senses, like five kings, maintain

In every man a several reign.

What are they which are but six?

Six days to labor is not wrong,

For God himself did work so long.

What are they which are but seven?

Seven liberal arts hath God sent down

With divine skill man’s soul to crown.

What are they which are but eight?

Eight Beatitudes are there given

Use them right and go to heaven.

What are they which are but nine?

Nine Muses, like the heaven’s nine spheres,

With sacred tunes entice our ears.

What are they which are but ten?

Ten statutes God to Moses gave

Which, kept or broke, do spill or save.

What are they which are but eleven?

Eleven thousand virgins did partake

And suffered death for Jesus’ sake.

What are they which are but twelve?

Twelve are attending on God’s son;

Twelve make our creed. The Dial’s done.

Using ordinary objects to represent biblical concepts is a common device, as exemplified by the several popular recordings of Deck of Cards.

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is what most people take it to be: a secular song that celebrates the Christmas season with imagery of gifts and dancing and music. Some misinterpretations have crept into the English version over the years, though. For example, the fourth day’s gift is four “colly birds,” not four “calling birds.” (The word “colly” literally means “black as coal,” and thus “colly birds” would be blackbirds.) The “five golden rings” refers not to five pieces of jewelry, but to five ring-necked birds (such as pheasants). When these errors are corrected, the pattern of the first seven gifts’ all being types of birds is re-established.

Nonetheless, plenty of writers continue to expound upon “the beauty and truly biblical and spiritual meanings locked away in this wonderful song that puts Christ into Christmas where he doesn’t appear to be.” 

Emphasizing that Christ is part of Christmas is a fine thing, but achieving that goal by inventing and spreading phony explanations about purely secular aspects of Christmas is not. And perhaps those who consider this tale (regardless of its literal truth) to be “beautiful” and “inspirational” should consider its underlying message: that one group of Jesus’ followers had to hide their beliefs in order to avoid being tortured and killed by another group of Jesus’ followers. Of all the aspects of Christianity to celebrate at Christmastime, should this really be one of them?”

“The late historian William Studwell, known for his Christmas carol expertise, also refuted the coded message idea. As he told the Religion News Service in 2008:

‘This was not originally a Catholic song, no matter what you hear on the Internet. … Neutral reference books say this is nonsense. If there was such a catechism device, a secret code, it was derived from the original secular song. It’s a derivative, not the source.'”

I read articles on two dozen webpages, both secular and religious. The majority of the religious ones repeated this story that the 12 Days of Christmas was a secret code to teach Biblical tenets. Many secular sites that cover Christmas say the same thing without checking for evidence to support it.

The Huffington Post printed an article about the illogical belief, insisting that the song is a religious teaching song.

“William Studwell, who was considered the dean of Christmas carol scholarship before he died last August, was also skeptical.

“If there was such a catechism device, a secret code, it was derived from the original secular song,” he said in a 2008 interview with Religion News Service. “It’s a derivative, not the source.”

“The song can still be used as an educational or devotional tool by using the symbols as a mnemonic device,” said the Rev. Dennis Bratcher, a Church of the Nazarene minister and director of the Christian Resource Institute. “Many Christians today hear the song in those terms anyway, regardless of its origins.”

That’s how “The Twelve Days” sounds to Ace Collins, an evangelical author of numerous books about Christmas carols.

On the surface, the carol seems as nonsensical as “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” Collins said. But a deeper meaning lies below the silly lyrics, he said, comparing the carol to “Roll, Jordan, Roll” the gospel song that was both biblical and a code for black slaves seeking to escape the South.

“Whether it was written that way, or adapted that way, either way it allows people to consider things they don’t normally think about,” Collins said of the carol, “and can possibly become a road that leads people to a greater understanding of Christ.”

Leigh Grant, who wrote and illustrated a children’s book about “The Twelve Days,” said the gifts are popular parts of medieval feasts, often held during Twelfth Night celebrations. The birds were eaten while the pipers, drummers, and lords entertained the guests. The five golden rings in the song refer not to jewelry, but to ring-necked pheasants.

But the song is also rife with symbolism, Grant said.

Partridges and pears, for instance, were considered emblems of fertility during the Renaissance, she said. Likewise, geese and swans were seen as intermediaries between the earth and the sky, and thus humans and heaven.

“I’ve heard a lot of theories about this song,” Grant said, “and I don’t know if any of them are true. But what often happens to songs is that people change them, and so does the meaning people find in them.” 

Yes, it seems harmless to allow people to make up things that support their religious beliefs. Still, to me, this is as irresponsible as anti-vaxxers passing misinformation about pandemic vaccinations.

And if you have to lie about your religion and its teachings, you can’t expect people to have much faith in it.

http://www.snopes.com

https://www.vox.com/21796404/12-days-of-christmas-explained

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-legend-of-12-days-of-_n_79782

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