Roark: The ‘12 Days of Christmas’

Published 7:43 am Monday, December 18, 2023

By Steve Roark

Contributing Writer

I like hearing the song “12 Days of Christmas,” which generates imagery of a lot of interesting people and animals. While it is considered a nonsensical sort of song, it has been suggested that it’s actually a secretly coded song of Christian instruction.

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Here’s the thought line: during the 16th century, there was a lot of fighting over religion at various times in England, France and other countries, and usually the division was Catholic versus Protestant. There was a time when Roman Catholics in England were not permitted to practice their faith openly, and so it’s thought that the carol “Twelve Days” was created to help Catholic children learn church doctrine. “My true love” mentioned in the song refers to God, and the “me” refers to those of Christian faith. Here is the song and its possible decoding:

A Partridge in a Pear Tree

The partridge is Jesus Christ, symbolically presented as a mother bird defending her helpless nestlings. It recalls the expression of Christ’s sadness over the fate of Jerusalem: “How often would I have sheltered you under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but you would not have it so…” (Luke 12:34).

Two Turtle Doves

Represents the Old and New Testaments that bear witness to all that God has done.

Three French Hens

These are the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love (1 Chor. 13:13).

Four Calling Birds

This is the four Gospels that proclaim the Good News

Five Gold Rings

This is the first five books of the Old Testament, referred to as the Pentateuch. They give the history of humanities fall and God’s response of grace.

Six Geese A-laying

These are the six days of creation that confess God as Creator.

Seven Swans A-swimming

These are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion (Romans 12:6-8)

Eight Maids A-milking

These are the eight Beatitudes found in Matthew 5; blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those seeking righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.

Nine Ladies Dancing

These are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22)

Ten Lords A-leaping

The Ten Commandments

Eleven Pipers Piping

This represents the 11 faithful Apostles, minus Judas Iscariot.

Twelve Drummers Drumming

These are the twelve points of what is called the “Apostles’ Creed,” an early statement of Christian beliefs, still widely used by several denominations. It states things like belief in God, the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, etc.

Is it a secret code or just a silly song? To be honest there is little hard evidence either way. But I like to put this one in the “lack of evidence is not evidence of absence” category. Considering what Christmas represents, historical accuracy is not really the point. The song can remind us of God’s love and grace, which is what Christmas is about, is it not? Merry Christmas, and thank you for reading my stuff.

Steve Roark is a volunteer at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park in east Tennessee.