The Twelve Days of Christmas, the Song and the Story

The Spiritual Meaning Behind a Silly Holiday Song Title The Twelve Days of Christmas

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The Twelve Days of Christmas originated as a children's poem in a book called Mirth about Mischief in 1760. In the 20th century, composer Frederic Austin (1872-1952) added some of his own words and adapted a melody from a European folk song dating back to at least the 16th century. The song has been a favorite Christmas Carol for many years, although many people sing it without understanding the foundational meaning.

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Celebrating the 12 days of Christmas is a tradition almost 2,000 years old. The 12 day/night observances begin December 25/26th, Christmas Day, and culminate on January 5/6th, the day of Epiphany (A Christian feast day which celebrates the revelation of God in human form, in the person of Jesus Christ).

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Over the centuries, different cultures, churches and families have created their own 12-day celebrations. Traditions vary greatly, from elaborate festivals to days of fasting; from providing food for the poor to hanging out a stocking to be filled on Christmas Eve. Even people who don't recognize Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Christ, sometimes unwittingly take part in 12-day traditions, such as hanging a wreath on the front door -- a tradition handed down from the Pilgrims who hung the wreath on Christmas day as a 'house blessing.' The Pilgrims adapted this idea from a house-blessing ritual dating back to the 12-day celebrations of the 4th century.

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The words of The Twelve Days of Christmas appear to be nonsensical. They do however, have significant meaning.

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  • 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

  • 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

  • The six geese a-laying stand for the six days of creation

  • The seven swans a-swimming represent the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit: prophecy, serving, exhortation, teaching, contribution, leadership and mercy

  • 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 11 pipers piping represent the 11 faithful disciples

  • The 12 drummers drumming symbolize the 12 points of belief in the Apostle's Creed

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Written by: Connie Ruth Christiansen