History: The Twelve Days of Christmas

Many historians believe the well-known song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, is actually a Christian hymn in disguise. During the reign of England’s Queen Elizabeth I, a staunch Protestant, English Catholics were oppressed and persecuted. Priests met secretly with small groups of Catholics, risking their lives to conduct worship and observe mass.

Under such circumstances, it was difficult to train or catechize Catholic children. But an unknown, clever priest found a unique way of teaching the Gospel to children, using the theme of the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany, when the Wise Men, according to tradition, arrived with their gifts for the Christchild.

The priest hid biblical truth in the symbols he used in his carol, beginning with the words On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me.… The “True Love” referred to God the Father, and the “Me” represents the Christian who receives the gifts. The “Partridge in the Pear Tree” is Jesus. Why a partridge? Mother partridges are known for feigning injury to decoy predators from their babies. The children were thereby taught about Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf.

The two turtle doves represented the Old and New Testaments.

The three French hens symbolized faith, hope, and love—the three great virtues we should display as we come to know Christ as Lord and read the Old and New Testaments. The other symbols:

•     Four calling birds—the four Gospels

•     Five golden rings—the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch

•     Six geese a laying—the six days of creation

•     Seven swans a-swimming—the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit

•     Eight maids a-milking—the eight Beatitudes of Matthew 5

•     Nine ladies dancing—nine choirs of angels

•     Ten lords a-leaping—the Ten Commandments

•     Eleven pipers piping—the eleven faithful apostles

•     Twelve drummers drumming—the twelve articles of the Apostles’ Creed[1]


[1] Morgan, R. J. (2000). Nelson’s complete book of stories, illustrations, and quotes (electronic ed., p. 112). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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