In an earlier post I commented how much fun I was having with a couple of Ace Collins' books showing the stories behind some of our Christmas traditions. I recently read his account behind the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas." As Collins tells the story the "Catholic faith was outlawed in sixteenth-century England" and so the church went underground. Clerics of the day composed poems which, while appearing silly to others, were "veiled works that taught the church's most important tenets." (178) In The Twelve Days of Christmas we have one of those poems. What follows are the key words from the song and their symbolism:
True Love = God
Partridge = Jesus (the partridge being the only bird that will die for its young)
Two Turtledoves = Old and New Testament
Three French Hens = Faith, hope, and love
Four Calling Birds = The four gospels
Five Gold Rings = The Pentateuch
Six Geese a-laying = First six days of creation
Seven swans a-swimming = Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit
Eight Maids a-milking = Those whom Jesus cared most for as enumerated in the beatitudes
Nine Ladies Dancing = The fruit of the Spirit
Ten Lords a-leaping = Ten commandments
Eleven Pipers Piping = The eleven disciples (Twelve disciples less Judas)
Twelve Drummers Drumming = Twelve points of doctrine as found in the Apostles' Creed.
This all sounds very interesting but it has one simple problem: it appears to be little more than a fairly recent legend with no historical credibility. Gretchen Passantino of Answers in Action (a researcher and an early colleague of the late Walter Martin) said she used to tell this story in her travels until she was challenged on it. Upon further research she found the song wasn't as old as the story required and "that it had not been associated with a memory-device catechism until recently." Snopes.com (and Truthorfiction.com) also says the story lacks historical credibility. Both sources say there may have been some confusion with another song called "A New Dial" (also called "In Those Twelve Days") which dates back to about 1625. This song did have a 12-day theme and it does assign a religious meaning to each of the days. Here are the lyrics to "A New Dial":
In those twelve days let us be glad,
In those twelve days let us be glad,
For God, by his grace, hath all things made.
What is that which is but one? (Repeat)
We have but one God alone
In heaven above sits on his throne.
What are they which are but two?
Two Testaments, we are told:
The one is New, the other Old.
What are they which are but three?
Three persons of the Trinity,
The Father, Son, and Ghost Holy.
What are they which are but four?
Four Gospels, written true,
John, Luke, Mark, and Matthew.
What are they which are but five?
Five senses we have to tell
God grant us grace to use them well.
What are they which are but six?
Six ages of this world shall last;
Five of them are gone and past.
What are they which are but seven?
Seven days in the week have we,
Six to work and the seventh holy.
What are they which are but eight?
Eight beatitudes are given;
Use them well and go to heaven.
What are they which are but nine?
Nine degrees of angels high
Which praise God continually.
What are they which are but ten?
Ten commandments God hath given:
Keep them right and go to heaven.
Jesus' sake.What are they which are but eleven?
Eleven thousand virgins [martyrs] did partake
And suffer death for Jesus' sake.
What are they which are but twelve?
Twelve Apostles Christ did choose
To preach the Gospel to the Jews.
The story of a secret code in a Christmas carol may be appealing to lovers of The Da Vinci Code but you'll not find it in The Twelve Days of Christmas. The partridge in a pear tree is just a partridge in a pear tree.