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The Twelve Days of Christmas

Some things are not as they seem, and if we judge something quickly, we may miss something very special about it. Several songs are that way. If you don't know the background, or as Paul Harvey so often said, "The Rest of the Story" then you deprive yourself of beauty and warmth. One such example is the story behind this song. You may wonder how "The Twelve Days of Christmas" still fits into the 2000's. It is not simply an archaic design by the songwriter.

In 16th century England (following the accession of Elizabeth 1) the English who remained loyal to Roman Catholicism found themselves on the wrong side of the law. They were forbidden by royal degree to teach the catechism to their children. So they disguised their teachings in metaphors and put them to a tune. "The 12 Days of Christmas" is one of those resulting songs. The carol reveals truths about Christ's life and message, highlighting several important to the Catholic faith.

The singer of the carol is the ordinary person who believes in Christ, and his 'true love' is God the Father. The accumulative pattern of going back each time through all the verses teaches the ongoing and abundant blessings of a loving God. We repeat to help us not forget what we have received. The whole song is a joyful celebration of what God has done for us.

  1. The partridge, a bird reputed to choose death to defend its young, is an ancient Christian symbol of Christ. Certainly one can see how Jesus' sacrifice was a gift to us?
  2. The two turtledoves signify the sacrifice offered in the temple by Joseph and Mary at the presentation of the Christ-child in the temple. (Some say that these two are actually the two testaments, Old and New, that were given to us by God.)
  3. The three 'French hens', priceless poultry in Elizabethan England, represent the three valuable gifts of the Magi. (Elsewhere I have seen that the three French Hens represent the three best things: Faith, Hope and Love.)
  4. The four 'calling birds' are the Gospel writers, that call us to Jesus. (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John)
  5. The five 'golden rings' represent the Torah, the first five books of the Scripture. (Did the Olympic symbol start here?)
  6. The six 'geese a-laying' represent the six days of creation.
  7. The seven 'swans a-swimming' are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. (Corinthians 12:9-11, Romans 12, Ephesians 4, 1 Peter 4:10-11)
  8. The eight 'maids a-milking' are the Beatitudes, which nourish our spirituality. (Matthew 5:3-11)
  9. The nine 'ladies dancing' refer to the nine choirs of angels. Again, some say that these represent the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-23)
  10. The ten 'lords a-leaping' are the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 20)
  11. The eleven 'pipers piping' signify the 11 original and loyal Apostles, who proclaimed the resurrection.
  12. The twelve 'drummers drumming' are the twelve beliefs enshrined in the Apostles' Creed.

When you next hear "The Twelve Days of Christmas," maybe you can use the occasion to lift your heart and mind to God in a new way because of the Christian symbolism in what may be a 'simplistic' and 'repetitious' Christmas song.

Portions were taken from "English Carols for Piano Solo" by Gail Smith, Mel Bay, publisher, 1993.

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