The Hidden Meaning of the Gifts in “12 Days of Christmas”
"The Twelve Days of Christmas" (or "12 Days of Christmas") is a holiday classic — and while it may not be as catchy as some of our other favourite Christmas songs, ask anyone what their true love gave them on the first day of Christmas, and they'd probably be able to sing right back, "A partridge in a pear tree!"
After hearing the song all season while decorating your Christmas tree, planning your most original holiday party, and baking the most delicious Christmas cookies — you may start to wonder, what does this mean?
Truthfully, not much of the song makes sense from a modern perspective. Why are there so many gifts? What do they mean? Who wants eight maids-a-milking, and what would you even do with them? Like many old stories, we have to understand the time it was first written to understand what it means. Let's take a look at the true story.
Though some scholars believe that the song is French in origin, the first print appearance of the song was in the English children's book Mirth With-out Mischief. If you haven't heard of it, that's probably because it was published in 1780. You can ask the person who shelled out $23,750 at a Sotheby's auction for a first edition to borrow their copy, but you may not recognise the lyrics. In this version, the "four calling birds" were actually “four colly birds." The term "colly" is Old English slang meaning birds dark as coal, a.k.a. blackbirds. In other old versions of the song, the partridge we know and loved is replaced with a “very pretty peacock upon a pear tree.” If you think that's weird, consider a Scottish version that gifts "an Arabian baboon.” In 1909, British composer Frederic Austin penned the version we are all familiar with today.
Most historians believe that the song started out a "memory-and-forfeit" game in 1800’s England. These types of games were played by British school children, and the rules were simple. When it's your turn, you repeat all the previously sung lyrics, and add the next one. If you can't remember a verse, you owe your opponent a "forfeit," which was usually a kiss or piece of candy.
You may have seen this theory floating around via chain emails and message boards. In a nutshell, the theory claims that during a time when Christians were punished for worshiping openly, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" song was used to secretly pass on the ideology of Christianity. In this theory, each gift symbolizes a different aspect of the faith:
· The Partridge in the Pear Tree is Jesus Christ.
· The 2 Turtle Doves are The Old and New Testaments.
· The 3 French hens are Faith, Hope, and Charity, the theological virtues.
· The 4 Calling Birds are the four gospels and/or the four evangelists.
· The 5 Golden Rings are the first five books of the Old Testament.
· The 6 Geese A-laying are the six days of creation.
· The 7 Swans A-swimming are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments.
· The 8 Maids A-milking are the eight beatitudes.
· The 9 Ladies Dancing are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit.
· The 10 Lords A-leaping are the ten commandments.
· The 11 Pipers Piping are the eleven faithful apostles.
· The 12 Drummers Drumming are the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed.
And the “partridge in a pear tree”? Jesus Christ as symbolically represented by a mother partridge protecting her helpless nestlings. Luke 13:34 recounts the words of Christ:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!
If something helps a Christian learn and understand the Faith and does no harm to dogma and worship, it only benefits the believer. So, have at it: if the Twelve Days of Christmas helps you and your children learn about Jesus and the Bible, then the merrier you will be if you judiciously use these “hidden meanings.”
That being said, one thing historians can agree on is that the twelve days over which the song takes place is a reference to Christianity. "The Twelve Days of Christmas" historically did not reference the days leading up to Christmas, but the twelve days following it. The period begins with birth of Christ on December 25th, Christmas Day, and ends with the coming of the Three Wise Men on January 6th, the Epiphany or Three Kings Day.