12 days of Christmas as a secret code


This was a message on our college email. It struck me as similar to the stories of tarot used to hide spiritual secrets from authoritarian oppressors:

Catholics in England during the period 1558 to 1829 were prohibited by law to practice their faith either in public or private. It was illegal to be Catholic until Parliament finally emancipated Catholics in England in 1829.

"The Twelve Days of Christmas" was written in England as one of the "catechism songs" to help young Catholics learn the basics of their faith. In short, it was a coded-message, a memory aid. Since the song sounded like rhyming nonsense, young Catholics could sing the song without fear of imprisonment. The authorities would not know that it was a religious song.

"The 12 Days of Christmas" is in a sense an allegory. Each of the items in the song represents something significant to the teachings of the Catholic faith. The hidden meaning of each gift was designed to help Catholic children learn their faith. The better acquainted one is with the Bible, the more these interpretations have significance.

The song goes, "On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me…"

The "true love" mentioned in the song doesn’t refer to an earthly suitor, but it refers to God Himself. The "me" who receives the presents refers to every baptized person. i.e. the Church.
1st Day: The partridge in a pear tree is Christ Jesus upon the Cross. In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge because she would feign injury to decoy a predator away from her nestlings. She was even willing to die for them.
The tree is the symbol of the fall of the human race through the sin of Adam and Eve. It is also the symbol of its redemption by Jesus Christ on the tree of the Cross.

2nd Day: The "two turtle doves" refers to the Old and New Testaments.

3rd Day: The "three French hens" stand for faith, hope and love—the three gifts of the Spirit that abide (1 Corinthians 13).

4th Day: The "four calling birds" refers to the four evangelists who wrote the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—which sing the song of salvation through Jesus Christ.

5th Day: The "five golden rings" represents the first five books of the Bible, also called the Jewish Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

6th Day: The "six geese a-laying" is the six days of creation.

7th Day: The "seven swans a-swimming" refers to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord.

8th Day: The "eight maids a milking " reminded children of the eight beatitudes listed in the Sermon on the Mount.

9th Day: The "nine ladies dancing" were the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit found in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.

10th Day: The "ten lords a-leaping" represents the Ten Commandments

11th Day: The "eleven pipers piping" refers to the eleven faithful apostles.

12th Day: The ‘twelve drummers drumming" were the twelve points of belief expressed in the Apostles’ Creed: belief in God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, that Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, made man, crucified, died and arose on the third day, that he sits at the right hand of the father and will come again, the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting.


That's charming, Imagemaker. Is it a just theory? or has it been suported somehow?

I can see the relationship between partridge in a tree and christ on the cross (sort of ) but after that the relationship between the gift and what it is supposed to mean sort of breaks down, and it is just the numbers that signify.

I've always wondered if it were supposed to mean something.


I don't know if this meaning has been "imposed" on the song, historically based, or creatively deduced. It was apparently first published as "How To Decode the Twelve Days of Christmas," by Hugh D. McKellar, U.S. Catholic, 12/1979.

Like the tarot, origins are murky.


Interesting theory. But it's kind of hard to believe -- the only real difference between Church of England and Catholicism was belief in the Pope as the head of the Church. So it doesn't seem as if a secret code would be needed.

I'd rather continue enjoying the song as a lover besotted!

Also, the Twelve Days of Christmas takes you to January 6, Little Christmas, The Epiphany. This is actually a Christian change from the Twelve Nights counted from Solstice and culminating in what was called "Twelfth Night" and is now celebrated as New Year's Eve.

The Twelve Nights as far as I know, preceeded Christianity in the British Isles -- it had to do with their calendar in some way. The Twelve Nights were somehow outside the regular calendar and were all "sacred time." So I've always thought of the hymn as particularly Pagan in its origins.

I still love all those ladies dancing, drummers drumming, geese a-laying, swans a-swaying. The images are great. I'd never remember all that theology. :)