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The Twelve Days of Christmas

Most of us are very familiar with the song, The Twelve Days of Christmas,” starting with “a partridge in a pear tree,” and ending with “12 drummers drumming” (YouTube video of the song available here), but I have to be honest in that I have never really looked into the background or history of the tradition, so I decided to take a look. And here is what I found out.

First off, it doesn’t start twelve days before Christmas as some might think it does. It actually starts on Christmas Day, December 25th, and goes to the Epiphany celebrated on January 6th:

The 12 days of Christmas, in fact, are the days from December 25th, celebrated as the birth of Jesus Christ, to the Epiphany, celebrated on January 6th as the day when the manifestation of Christ’s glory was realized. Some exchange gifts on each of the 12 days instead of only on Christmas day. (Quote source here.)

In an article titled, The Hidden Meaning of the Twelve Days of Christmas,” published on December 14, 2011 (the author’s name is not mentioned), I found the following information:

The Twelve Days of Christmas was created in England during a time of religious persecution when Catholicism was outlawed in the 16th to 18th centuries. The song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” was written as a kind of secret catechism that could be sung in public without fear of arrest – a learning or memory aid to Christians in fact. Each verse refers to a teaching of church doctrine — with the partridge being Christ who died on a tree and the “True Love” being God the Father, who gave us all gifts. The twelve days of Christmas are the twelve days between Christmas Day, Dec. 25th, the birth of Jesus, and the Epiphany, Jan. 6th, the day Christians celebrate the arrival of the Magi (Wise Men) and the revelation of Christ as the light of the world.

Each element in the song is a code word for religious truth:

1. The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus.
2. The two turtledoves are the Old and New Testaments.
3. Three French hens stand for faith, hope and love.
4. The four calling birds are the four Gospels.
5. The five gold rings recall the Hebrew Torah (Law), or the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament.
6. The six geese a-laying stand for the six days of creation.
7. The seven swans a-swimming represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
8. The eight maids a-milking are the eight Beatitudes.
9. Nine ladies dancing are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit.
10. The ten lords a-leaping are the Ten Commandments.
11. Eleven pipers piping represent the eleven faithful Apostles.
12. Twelve drummers drumming symbolize the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles Creed.

Merry Christmas! (Quote source here.)

The following information is taken from an article titled, The Twelve Days of Christmas,” by Dennis Bratcher, Webmaster, General Editor, and the Executive Director of CRI/Voice Institute:

The Twelve Days of Christmas is probably the most misunderstood part of the church year among Christians who are not part of liturgical church traditions. Contrary to much popular belief, these are not the twelve days before Christmas, but in most of the Western Church are the twelve days from Christmas until the beginning of Epiphany  (January 6th; the 12 days count from December 25th until January 5th). In some traditions, the first day of Christmas begins on the evening of December 25th with the following day considered the First Day of Christmas (December 26th). In these traditions, the twelve days begin December 26 and include Epiphany on January 6.

The origin and counting of the Twelve Days is complicated, and is related to differences in calendars, church traditions, and ways to observe this holy day in various cultures (see Christmas). In the Western church, Epiphany is usually celebrated as the time the Wise Men or Magi arrived to present gifts to the young Jesus (Matt. 2:1-12). Traditionally there were three Magi, probably from the fact of three gifts, even though the biblical narrative never says how many Magi came. In some cultures, especially Hispanic and Latin American culture, January 6th is observed as Three Kings Day, or simply the Day of the Kings (Span: la Fiesta de Reyes,el Dia de los Tres Reyesel Dia de los Reyes Magos; Dutch: Driekoningendag). Even though December 25th is celebrated as Christmas in these cultures, January 6th is often the day for giving gifts. In some places it is traditional to give Christmas gifts for each of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Since Eastern Orthodox traditions use a different religious calendar, they celebrate Christmas on January 7th and observe Epiphany or Theophany on January 19th.

By the 16th century, some European and Scandinavian cultures had combined the Twelve Days of Christmas with (sometimes pagan) festivals celebrating the changing of the year. These were usually associated with driving away evil spirits for the start of the new year.

The Twelfth Night is January 5th, the last day of the Christmas Season before Epiphany (January 6th). In some church traditions, January 5th is considered the eleventh Day of Christmas, while the evening of January 5th is still counted as the Twelfth Night, the beginning of the Twelfth day of Christmas the following day. Twelfth Night often included feasting along with the removal of Christmas decorations. Many European celebrations of Twelfth Night included a King’s Cake, remembering the visit of the Three Magi, and ale or wine (a King’s Cake is part of the observance of Mardi Gras in French Catholic culture of the Southern USA). In some cultures, the King’s Cake was part of the celebration of the day of Epiphany.

The popular song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is usually seen as simply a nonsense song for children with secular origins. However, some have suggested that it is a song of Christian instruction, perhaps dating to the 16th century religious wars in England, with hidden references to the basic teachings of the Christian Faith. They contend that it was a mnemonic device to teach the catechism to youngsters. The “true love” mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The “me” who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the “days” represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn.

However, many have questioned the historical accuracy of this origin of the song The Twelve Days of Christmas.  While some have tried to debunk this as an “urban myth” out of personal agendas, others have tried to deal with this account of the song’s origin in the name of historical accuracy (see Snopes on The 12 Days of Christmas). There is little “hard” evidence available either way. Some church historians affirm this account as basically accurate, while others point out apparent historical and logical discrepancies.

The reality is that the “evidence” for both perspectives is mostly in logical deduction and probabilities.  Lack of positive evidence does not automatically provide negative evidence. On the other hand, logical deduction and probability do not provide proof either. One internet site devoted to debunking hoaxes and legends says that, “there is no substantive evidence to demonstrate that the song ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ was created or used as a secret means of preserving tenets of the Catholic faith, or that this claim is anything but a fanciful modern day speculation…”. Yet, there is no “substantive evidence” that will disprove it either.

The view of the song as a secret catechism is most likely legendary or anecdotal. Without corroboration and in the absence of “substantive evidence,” we probably should not take overly rigid positions from either perspective. It is all too easy to turn the song into a crusade for personal opinions. That would do more to violate the spirit of Christmas than the song is worth. So, for the sake of historical accuracy, we need to acknowledge the likelihood that the song had secular origins.

However, on another level, this should not prevent us from using the song in celebration of Christmas. Many of the symbols of Christianity were not originally religious, including even the present date of Christmas, but were appropriated from contemporary culture by the Christian Faith as vehicles of worship and proclamation. Perhaps, when all is said and done, historical accuracy, as important as that might be on one level, is not really the point. Perhaps more important is that Christians can celebrate their rich heritage, and God’s grace, through one more avenue during the Advent and Christmas seasons.  Now, when they hear what they once thought was only a secular “nonsense song,” they will be reminded in one more way of the grace of God working in transforming ways in their lives and in our world. After all, is that not the meaning of Christmas anyway? (Quote source here.)

And now for a bit of fun trivia regarding “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” published in Business Insider on November 24, 2017, in an article titled, Here’s the True Cost of the Twelves Days of Christmas,” by Akin Oyedele, Senior Markets Reporter:

  • Every year, PNC calculates the real-world prices of all the gifts in the “12 Days of Christmas” carol. 
  • Their so-called Christmas Price Index rose 0.6% this year, driven by higher costs of pear trees, more demand for gold rings, and higher wages for Lords-a-leaping.  
  • While it’s frivolous, PNC’s index mirrors some of the underlying trends in the US economy. 

A partridge in a pear tree and all the other 11 gifts would set you back $34,558.65 this year.

That’s slightly more expensive than last year, according to PNC’s annual index of the 12 Days of Christmas. 

For 34 years running, PNC has set out to calculate the costs of every item in the carol to create a Christmas Price Index. It’s more frivolous, but not that different from the government’s consumer price index that tracks the costs of everyday items. PNC’s sources include retailers, poultries, and dance companies. 

The CPI (from PNC) increased by 0.6% year-on-year, led by higher costs for pear trees and increased demand for gold rings. Indeed, the precious metal has had a good year like many other financial assets, gaining about 11%. 

In addition, the index was driven up by higher wages for 10 Lords-a-leaping. PNC recorded a 2% increase to $5,618.90 for this gig. Perhaps all the clamor for higher minimum wages and a tightening labor market helped.

Some workers, however, saw no compensation growth, much like the federal minimum wage, which has stayed unchanged since 2009. They included the eight maids-a-milking and nine ladies dancing. 

PNC also calculates a core-CPI. They exclude unpredictable swan prices instead of food and energy costs like the Department of Labor does. The core index rose 0.9% and would cost about $21,000 excluding swans-a-swimming. 

The chart below shows how the “12 Days of Christmas” gifts have evolved over the years.

A full infographic is available over at PNC »

One final article back on a more serious note that I found on Bible.org titled, The Twelve Days of Christmas: A Christmas Song for All Year Long,” by Timothy J. Ralston, Professor of Pastoral Ministries at Dallas Theological Seminarystates the following:

“On the first day of Christmas my true love…” When I was young it was a cute Christmas song. Getting all those gifts in right order at breakneck speed was the annual challenge. (I rarely succeeded. But then no one else did either.)

Then I grew older (and more spiritually intense). It became another secular mockery of sacred themes. It joined my collection of Yuletide debris discarded in an attic steamer trunk. Recently rummaging through my memories I found the chest with its song inside just as I’d left it.

I think I was wrong. I’ve missed a most wonderful gift, wrapped and given to me by those who followed Jesus before me.

Who wrote it? No one knows. But it’s been around for a long time. Although I couldn’t speak to its author, I could start with two facts. First, the twelve days are the period between the differing celebrations of Christmas—December 25 (in the Western church) and January 6 (in the Eastern church).

Second, people living when it was written commonly wrote, painted, and thought using symbols to express what they meant. All those birds and people are probably much more than they seem. (It certainly isn’t a coded list of significant biblical numbers. That probably confuses it with a similar song called “In Those Twelve Days”.) So I started looking. Here’s what I found.

In the Middle Ages birds were symbols of a human being, the soul, and each bird had specific associations. But the birds in the song had interesting Christian connections.

  • The partridge was always associated with Jesus’ birth. More than that, so was the pear tree. So the song begins with a double-image of the Nativity!
  • Since I’m thinking of Jesus’ birth, “two turtle doves” brought to mind Jesus’ presentation at Mary’s purification (Luke 2:21-24) and the Spirit’s descent upon him after his baptism at the start of his public ministry (Luke 3:21-22).
  • “French hens,” symbols of self-sacrifice and care, are reminiscent of Jesus’ role as the Good Shepherd to his own while he was among them.
  • “Calling birds”? One author suggested it might originally be “colley birds,” that is, blackbirds. (Unfortunately I haven’t found anything on their symbolism…yet.)
  • Since it’s Christmas, the “five gold rings” aren’t jewelry. Instead they remind us of golden ring-necked pheasants that were often associated with Nativity scenes (as can be seen in Fra Angelico’s Nativity) as well as a royalty (suggesting Jesus’ Messianic role) and the promise of life that rises from the ashes of death.
  • “Geese” (whether white or gray) symbolized spiritual vigilance, avoidance of worldly pleasures, wholehearted devotion to Godly obedience. Sounds like Jesus again.
  • “Seven swans” bring the opening series to a climax. Swans, always associated with royalty and prophecy, were thought to know the hour of their death and announce their death with a great cry (“swan song”), thereby earning them an enduring association with Christ’s work on the cross. Then add the biblical nuance of seven suggesting a completed work, and the connection to the cross is complete.

Boy, this was really interesting! If I’d lived 500 years ago, singing the first seven verses could be a powerful reminder of my Savior, his life and work.

As anyone who sings this song knows, from here on you gotta hold on to your dentures! Momentum gathers with the last five gifts – all people. Lowly “milk maids” at work give way to dancing “ladies” and “lords” in ever-increasing displays of joy, followed by an orchestra of “pipers” and “drummers” to support the chorus, and rehearsed at a speed that carries me along in its grand celebration. What a wonderful way to celebrate the coming of our Savior!

Then I got out my calculator. How many gifts were there? If one arrives on the first day, three on the second, six on the third, …by the last day there’s a grand total of 364 gifts. That’s one for every day of the year!

Now at last I understood. “My True Love” was no mere earthly lover but my Heavenly Father. The gift of His Son was sufficient for every day of my year.

The irony? Everybody, even my fellow Christians, think it’s only a secular song. They even enjoy the lusty singing of its parodies – like “The Twelve Days After Christmas – to mock at the corruption of the holiday. They don’t understand why I can’t laugh and sing it with them anymore. As Laurence Stookey, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), p. 177, notes: “Misinterpretations and secularization of this old text in the recent revival of its use probably reveal more about our loss of theological awareness that we care to admit.”

No, I don’t expect to hear The Twelve Days of Christmas in a Sunday worship service this season. That’s not where it was created or where it belongs. Instead listen for my voice some July afternoon, ringing out from a hot car or crowded street corner, celebrating the profound work of our Savior and the joy of his presence that fills my heart every day of the year! (Quote source here.)

I hope you’ve enjoyed this short journey into the history of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” I learned a lot, too. And may it give new meaning to an old and familiar song at this time of year.

On the first day of Christmas . . .

My True Love gave to me . . .

A Partridge in a pear tree (Jesus) . . . .

YouTube Video: “Carol of the Bells” (for 12 cellos) – The Piano Guys:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here
Photo #3 credit here
Photo #4 credit here

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