Just about everyone knows the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” But as a kid and for many years afterward I would ask myself, “Where does this idea of twelve days of Christmas come from?”
Just about everyone knows the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” But as a kid and for many years afterward I would ask myself, “Where does this idea of twelve days of Christmas come from?” After all, there is just one day to Christmas. Eventually I got around to exploring the subject. I discovered that in my Protestant, Americanized upbringing the idea that Christmas was once a twelve day holiday had been buried in the dust of history. For nearly 1500 years, Christmas had been the period of time between Christmas Day and Epiphany. The celebration of Christmas was not a frenetic rush of activity on December 25th, but a two week period where days of labor were mixed with frequent disruptions of feasting, gift giving and … I must confess … drinking.
But the song itself may have had more of a conspiratorial tone to it back in its day. While it is not determined to be a certainty, the song may have evolved as a catechism of the Catholic community in an age when being Catholic was not acceptable, if not treasonous. So what each of the days stand for may vary over time.
But what I have come up with may prove helpful. You can use the 12 days of Christmas as a guidepost for celebrating the entire Christmas Tide.
The “partridge” in a pear tree may have been a ptarmigan or a grouse. Local uses of the term will apply to different birds. But the Partridge, in this case, stands for Jesus Christ. So the first day of Christmas, the 25th of December, celebrates the birth of Jesus.
2 Collared Doves
The song refers to them as turtle doves. But I like to consider the collared dove. This “invasive” species suddenly decided to move out of the Middle East about three or four hundred years ago. It spread throughout Europe and was introduced to the Western Hemisphere by a settler in the Bahama Islands. They escaped and flew to Florida from which, in a matter of a few decades, spread all the way up to Alaska! Amazing birds and quite beautiful. It may well have been a collared dove that rested upon Jesus at his baptism. The two doves stand for the Old and New Testaments. This is a great opportunity to introduce to your children the two parts of the Bible. For older kids and adults, you may have some fun attempting to recall the books contained in each testament.
3 French Hens
What exactly is a French hen? Hard to say, but the modern day equivalent would be the Bresse Chicken. An American variety is featured in the video below. The three hens represent what in Catholic tradition are cardinal virtues (again, another play on birds): Faith, Hope and Love. It correlates with 3 of the 4 candles of the Advent Wreath. The 4th is peace. This is a great opportunity to read to the family 1 Corinthians 13 and to symbolize this through lighting three advent candles.
4 Calling Birds
What exactly is a “calling” bird? Well, this is where something gets lost in translation. The original word may have been “colly”, which refers to black birds. Anyone who has hosted a flock of black birds can tell you that “calling” is what these creatures seem to do best. The 4 colly birds represent the four gospels. This is a great opportunity to open up the New Testament, point to the four books in the Bible and briefly explain what they contain. One important point here is that it demonstrates that the stories of Jesus are not invented tales, but actually recorded events.
5 Golden Rings
Ah – rings. Like the Three Rings of the Elves, Seven Rings for the Dwarves, and Nine for Men? The five rings stand for the five books of the Pentateuch. Here you can open the Old Testament and point out the first five books. Briefly explain that it is here where the stories of creation, Joseph and the Exodus come from.
6 geese a-laying
Now that we are now in the Old Testament, it is here you can point to the first couple chapters of Genesis regarding the 6 days of creation. It may be a good time to go through each of the days of creation, noting the logical sequence of creation and that the earth and the life on it is purposeful, not random.
7 swans a-swimming
This is where this song excels. As noted above, the three cardinal virtues were introduced. Now the song introduces the seven gifts of the Spirit: Prophesying, Serving, Teaching, Exhorting, Giving, Leading, and showing mercy. This is a good time to take an inventory of this “skill set,” to consider which of these God has already gifted you in, and which you can seek in the coming year.
It is interesting to note that milking was a thing often done by women. I recall my grandmother was the one who went to the barn each morning to milk the cow. When you consider the size of the beast, it was remarkable how women seemed to have the better touch when it came to handling a cow. The maids represent the Beatitudes. Again, another list, but an important teaching tool. Can you recite eight beatitudes?
9 ladies dancing
As noted above, Christmas Tide was party time. And so we have nine ladies dancing! These dames represent the fruits of the Holy Spirit: Charity, Joy, Peace, Patience, Goodness [Kindness], Mildness, Fidelity, Modesty, Chastity. Adding these fruits to the three cardinal virtues, you have a complete list of the attributes God wants us to possess in life.
10 lords a-leaping
Something tells me there is more to this than just ten leaping lords. But as you go through the process of memorizing the Ten Commandments, the image of a leaping lord may help you recall them.
11 pipers piping
In the end, on resurrection day, there were only eleven faithful apostles. Can you name them?
12 drummers drumming
Wow. Here is a toughy. The 12 drummers represent the twelve points of belief contained in the Apostles Creed. Most of us cannot even recite the Apostles Creed, much less itemize the twelve tenets.
In the end, who is the “true love” who gives all these gifts?
© Copyright 2023 to Eric Niewoehner
“The History of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’,” Catholic News Agency
“The Twelve Days of Christmas“, Snopes, by David Mikkelson, December 15, 2000