The 12 Days of Christmas – The Christmas Song with Surprising Symbolism

The 12 Days of Christmas is a fun song that people of all ages sing at Christmastime. Until recently, I thought it was simply about a lucky guy whose true love gave him lots of presents. However, there was a time when The 12 Days of Christmas was used as an undercover teaching tool for children in the Catholic Church.

In the 16th century, the Church of England was the only legal church in England. If Catholics were going to disciple their children in their faith and practice, they had to do so in secret. Even their lessons of doctrine and faith had to be reproduced by secret code. Even though The 12 Days of Christmas appears to be without purpose, it actually taught important doctrinal lessons. The 12 days marked the time between Christmas Day and Epiphany, when it is celebrated that the wise men visited Jesus in Bethlehem. The “true love” mentioned in the song is not speaking of a romantic love interest, but of the Lord’s love for each of us. Each day also has an undercover spiritual meaning. I’ll list them below as succinctly as possible:

1st Day of Christmas – The partridge in a pear tree represents Jesus, who gave his life for us, much as a mother partridge would do for her chicks. The pear tree also symbolizes the cross. 

2nd Day of Christmas – The two turtle doves represent the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Doves are symbols of peace and truth as the Bible conveys.

3rd Day of Christmas – The three French hens represent the gold, frankincense, and myrrh presented to Jesus by the wise men. In the olden days, if a meal served three French hens, it was fit for a king. 

4th Day of Christmas – The four calling birds represent the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) which cry out the story of Jesus for all to hear.

5th Day of Christmas – The five golden rings represent the five Old Testament books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy which showed not only the fall of man but gave hope that a Savior would come and offer a pathway to salvation.

6th Day of Christmas – The six geese a-laying represent the six days of Creation. The eggs are a symbol of new life.

7th Day of Christmas – The Seven swans a-swimming represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit listed in Romans 12:6-8 (Prophecy, Service, Teaching, Encouragement, Giving, Leadership, and Mercy). Children were often taught that when you follow the ways of the Lord, the gifts of the spirit moved in your life as easily as a swan swam on the water.

8th Day of Christmas – The Eight maids a-milking represent the common folk Jesus came to save who are follow the eight beatitudes (the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemaker, and the righteous.)

9th Day of Christmas – The Nine ladies dancing represent the nine fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Dancing represented the joy of serving Christ.

10th Day of Christmas – The ten lords a-leaping represent the 10 Commandments because a lord was supposed to be just and noble.  

11th Day of Christmas – The eleven pipers piping represent the 12 Disciples of Jesus minus Judas who fell away. They led the way in taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

12th Day of Christmas – The twelve drummers drumming represent the dozen elements found in the Apostles’ Creed (You can read it here.) The drum symbolized the daily practice and rhythm of spiritual disciplines. 

Fortunately, the time finally came in history when Catholicism was no longer a crime in England. However, by the time that happened, most people didn’t understand the undercover meanings behind the days and the gifts. Therefore, the song is most often thought of as a whimsical and fun Christmas song.

Click here to hear one of my favorite renditions of the 12 Days of Christmas by John Denver and the Muppets.

*Image courtesy of Chris Sowder and Unsplash.

**This post and others like it can be found at www.johnjfrady.com