I’m the kind of person who likes to dig for facts about things. The origin of a creative work is of great interest to me. I hope it is for you too.
In 1995, an essay entitled An Underground Catechism was posted by Father Hal Stockert on the online Catholic Information Network.
Purporting to be the truth behind the popular song The Twelve Days of Christmas, the article resulted in a storm of controversy and was subsequently found to be not historically accurate, resulting in the article being withdrawn.
A few years ago, the article was published again and amended to read:
It has come to our attention that this tale is made up of both fact and fiction. Hopefully it will be accepted in the spirit it was written—as an encouragement to people to keep their faith alive, when it is easy, and also when any outward expressions of their faith could mean their life. Today there are still people living under similar conditions, may this tale give them courage, and determination to use any creative means at their disposal to keep their faith alive.
The essay by Father Stockert has been debunked by many people on the Internet through the years. As a Christian, I wish Father Stockert had posted the essay as his interpretation of the significance of the numbers from one to twelve, symbolic of the religious significance of the twelve days between Christmas Day and Epiphany, January 6, when the three wise men arrived to pay homage to the Christ child.
The True History of The 12 Days of Christmas Carol
The Twelve Days of Christmas is an English Christmas carol that enumerates a series of gifts given on each of the twelve days of Christmas. Although first published in England in 1780, the song may be French in origin.
The song, whose specific origins are obviously unknown, may have begun as a Twelfth Night “memories and forfeits” game. A leader would recite a verse, each of the players repeat the verse, then the leader would add another verse, etc. until a player would make a mistake. The player who messed up the verses would have to pay a penalty, or forfeit, such as a kiss or a sweet.
The 12 days in the song are the 12 days starting Christmas Day. In some traditions, the first day is the day after Christmas, December 26, commonly called Boxing Day in England. (This day is also known as St. Stephen’s Day, the feast day of St. Stephen Protomartyr.) The 12th day is the day before Epiphany, or the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6.
Twelfth Night is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the evening of the fifth of January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of the Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking.”
In 1910, the song came to the United States, courtesy of Emily Brown, of the Downer Teacher’s College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who had found the song in an English music store. She is said to have used the song for the school Christmas pageant.
This Christmas, I’d like to share with you Father Stockert’s essay. One can only assume that he must have come by this explanation of the song at some point in his life and thought it to be the true record of the song’s history.
Whether you find it spiritually rewarding or just a footnote as another Internet urban myth debunked, at least you’ll be entertained and learn the true history of the song, along with a little world history and Christian history in the bargain.
Quoting from Father Stockert’s Essay
To most, the Christmas song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, is a nonsense rhyme set to music, but it’s more than just a repetitious melody about a bunch of strange gifts.
From 1558 to 1829, after Henry VIII abolished Catholicism and established the Church of England in order to facilitate and legalize his marriage to Anne Boleyn, Catholics in England were banned from any private or public practice of their faith. It was a crime to be a Catholic.
The Twelve Days of Christmas was written as a catechism song to help young Catholics learn the tenets of their faith. A memory aid was necessary since to be caught with anything in writing that indicated adherence to the Catholic faith could not only get you imprisoned but also could get you hanged or beheaded.
The gifts mentioned in the song had hidden meanings. The true love mentioned in the song doesn’t refer to an earthly suitor, it refers to God Himself. The me who receives the presents refers to every baptized person. The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge which feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings, much in memory of the expression of Christ’s sadness over the fate of Jerusalem: “Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered thee under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but thou wouldst not have it so….”
The symbolism of the song in its entirety:
Day 1—A Partridge in a Pear Tree is Jesus Christ, Our Lord.
Day 2—2 Turtle Doves represent the Old and New Testaments.
Day 3—3 French Hens are Faith, Hope and Love, the Theological Virtues.
Day 4—4 Calling Birds are the 4 Gospels and/or the 4 Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Originally this was a colly bird. Colly means black as coal so a colly bird was probably a black bird.
Day 5—5 Golden Rings are the first 5 Books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy which give the history of man’s fall from grace. Originally this was a gold-ringed pheasant, another bird which re-establishes the first seven verses as being birds.
Day 6—6 Geese A-laying represent the 6 Days of Creation.
Day 7—7 Swans A-swimming are the 7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit, the 7 Sacraments: Prophecy, Ministry, Teaching, Exhortation, Giving, Leading, and Compassion.
Day 8—8 Maids A-milking are the 8 Beatitudes. "Blessed are: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake."
Day 9—9 Ladies Dancing are the 9 Fruits of the Holy Spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Generosity, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-control.
Day 10—10 Lords A-leaping are the 10 Commandments.
Day 11—11 Pipers Piping are the 11 Faithful Apostles: Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James bar Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas bar James. The list does not include the twelfth disciple, Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus to the religious leaders and the Romans.
Day 12—12 Drummers Drumming are the 12 Points of Doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed:
- I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
- I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
- He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.
- He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell (the grave).
- On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father.
- He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
- I believe in the Holy Spirit
- the holy catholic (universal) Church
- the communion of saints
- the forgiveness of sins
- the resurrection of the body
- and life everlasting.
There you have it—the fact and the fiction of this popular Christmas song.