The Story and Meaning of the Christmas Carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”
It used to annoy me–that Christmas song, the Twelve Days of Christmas. It was one of those interminable songs that made absolutely no sense. When I learned a little bit of the story behind the song, however, it changed things.
Like some other well-known Christmas songs, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a very old carol, dating as far back as the 1500s. According to church tradition, the Christmas celebration lasted twelve days, beginning on Christmas Day (December 25) and extending to Epiphany, the traditional date for the visit of the Magi (2011: on January 6, celebrated January 2). In the 15th and 16th centuries, counting songs were very much in vogue, so a song about the Twelve Days of Christmas quickly became popular. But The Twelve Day of Christmas is more than just a cute counting song. It has rich symbolism in regard to Christian teachings. Sure, it sounds a bit odd. French hens? Geese-a-laying? What do geese, golden rings, and leaping lords have to do with the Bible or doctrine? Maybe not a whole lot, but the song was also used as a teaching tool, somewhat like a mnemonic device for remembering important aspects of doctrine. Here is what each of the twelve gifts stands for:
My “True Love” in the song refers to God. Thus, each of the following gifts are to be understood as gifts from God.
- The partridge in a pear tree refers to Jesus Christ on the cross.
- The two turtle doves refer to the Old and New Testaments.
- The three French hens stand for faith, hope and love, which are the primary virtues taught in the New Testament.
- The four calling birds are the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
- The five gold rings represent the first five books of the Old Testament, which is called the Pentateuch.
- The six geese a-laying stand for the six days of creation.
- The seven swans a-swimming represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: prophecy, serving, exhortation, teaching, contribution, leadership and mercy. (According to some sources, the seven swans refer to the seven sacraments.)
- The eight maids a-milking are the eight beatitudes.
- The nine ladies dancing are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
- The ten lords a-leaping stand for the Ten Commandments.
- The eleven pipers piping represent the 11 faithful disciples.
- The twelve drummers drumming symbolize the 12 points of doctrine from the ancient Apostle’s Creed.
Now you know! So, maybe for a bit of Christmas trivia during your caroling, you can see how many people know what the twelve gifts stand for.
- Find some great Christmas media for your Christmas service.
- Find Christmas worship backgrounds for your church carol sing.
- Read more about the stories behind Christmas carols.