The song, the 12 Days of Christmas, had its origins as a teaching tool to instruct young people in the meaning and content of our Catholic faith.
From 1558 to 1829, Roman Catholics in England were not able to practice their faith openly so they had to find other ways to pass on their beliefs. The 12 Days of Christmas is, in a sense, an allegory. Each of the items in the song represents something of religious significance. The hidden meaning of each gift was designed to help young Catholics learn their faith.
The song goes:
On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me… the “true love” represents God who gives all these wonderful gifts to “me” who is the follower of Christ–symbolic of every baptized person.
The partridge in a pear tree reminds us of Jesus Christ who died on the tree of the cross as a gift from God. The partridge is a reminder of Christ because a mother partridge will literally give her life for her children.
The two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments–another gift from God.
The three French hens were faith, hope, and love–the three gifts of the Spirit that abide.
The four calling birds were the four Gospels that sing the song of salvation through Jesus Christ.
The five golden rings were the first five books of the Bible, also called the Books of Moses. These books were treated by the Jews with great reverence and considered worth more than gold (Psalm 19:10).
The six geese a-laying were the six days of creation. Eggs are almost a universal symbol of new life.
The seven swans a-swimming were the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit–wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear. (Isaish 11.2-3).
The eight maids a-milking were the eight Beatitudes. The Beatitudes of Jesus nourish us.
The nine ladies dancing were fruits of the Holy Spirit.
The ten lords a-leaping were the Ten Commandments. Lords were men who had authority in people’s lives.
The eleven pipers piping were the eleven faithful disciples. People joyfully followed their message.
The twelve drummers drumming were the twelve points of the Apostles Creed. These twelve vital beliefs set us apart as Christians.
The next time you hear The 12 days of Christmas, consider how this otherwise non-religious-sounding song had its origins in our Catholic Faith.