The 12 days of Christmas (origin and meaning)

This is one famous carol for Christmas across the world. It is on the surface a song about gifts and love on each of the days following Christmas. Originally a poem by Catholic clerics to disguise teachings, it was sung to help Catholics, especially the younger ones to learn about their faith at a time where they were not allowed to. In other words, a way to catechize the children. Underneath, it veils the tenets of the Christian faith and portrays them through gifts from the “true love”. The “true love” is actually the code for God.

In England, it was prohibited for Catholics, according to the law, to practice their faith from the year 1558 until the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. It was the same for Ireland. During this time, parents could not instruct their children in the faith because they could be punished. So, the Church went underground and tools like this song for example were used to instruct them in the faith.

Today, many people believe that the first day of Christmas starts either the 12 or 13 and runs down to the 25th. However, the 12 days are the days between the 25th of December to the 6th of January, between Christmas day and the feast of Epiphany. This was known as the holiday season.

The lyrics and meanings go like this:

On the nth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

  1. A partridge in a pear tree → The partridge symbolizes Christ and the pear tree represents the cross.
  2. Two turtle doves → The two testaments: the old and the new.
  3. Three French hens → The three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity and also the presents given by the three magi: gold, incense and myrrh.
  4. Four calling birds → The four Gospels, the four evangelists’ spread of the good news.
  5. Five golden rings → The first five books of the Old testament also known as the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
  6. Six geese a-laying → The six days of creation.
  7. Seven swans a­-swimming → The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of God; and the seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Order, and Matrimony.
  8. Eight maids a-milking → The eight beatitudes, refer to Matthew 5:3-10.
  9. Nine ladies dancing → The nine fruits of the holy spirit: Charity, Joy, Peace, Patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; and the nine choirs of angels, also known as the nine orders of angels: Seraphims, Cherubims, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels and Angels.
  10. Ten lords a-leaping → The ten commandments given by God.
  11. Eleven pipers piping → The eleven apostles that remained faithful to Jesus.
  12. Twelve drummers drumming → The twelve articles of the Creed; the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles’ Creed.

Now think about the splendid relationship between those imageries and their meanings. For example, the seven swans. Just like cygnets change from hideous ducklings to become gorgeous swans when they grow up, the gifts of the holy spirit and the seven sacraments are spiritual gifts from god that transform us. (Remember the ugly duckling story?)

This is post 2 of 3 of 2020 Christmas special.

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