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The True Meaning Of The 12 Days Of Christmas Carol: A Theory

By Chidirim Ndeche 25 December 2017   |   6:00 am

The radio may have been blasting Christmas tunes for a while and Christmas decorations may have started going up a month before, but the true Christmas season starts on Christmas Day itself when you can truly start singing…

“On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
twelve drummers drumming,
eleven pipers piping,
ten Lords a-leaping,
nine ladies dancing,
eight maids a-milking,
seven swans a-swimming,
six geese a-laying,
five gold rings,
four calling birds,
three French hens,
two turtle doves
and a partridge in a pear tree.”


You probably sang this carol while in school and found yourself wondering what in the world French hens, leaping lords, geese laying eggs and a stubborn partridge who refused to leave the pear tree had to do with Christmas.

Illustration of Kids Singing Christmas Carols

This cumulative, well-known carol has 12 verses with each verse describing a gift given by a true love on one of the 12 days of Christmas. The lyrics have had many variations over the years, but the most popular was this version from Frederic Austin’s 1909 publication.

A popular theory that has made the internet rounds is that the lyrics to The 12 Days of Christmas are coded references to Christianity and the song was written to help Christians learn and pass on the tenets of their faith while avoiding persecution.

Sometime between 1558 and 1829, when Roman Catholics in England were unable to practise their faith openly and freely, someone wrote this special carol as a catechism song for young Catholics. Catechism, a summary or exposition of the Christian doctrine, was a learning introduction to the religious teaching of children and adult converts. The carol had a hidden meaning known only to members of the church and each element in the carol had a code word for their faith that they could remember.

So, what did these elements in one of the most popular carols mean under this theory?

My true love in this carol wasn’t about what a smitten lover did; instead, it referred to Jesus Christ and the love he showed that led to Christmas Day. The partridge in a pear tree also referred to him because the partridge is a bird known to be willing to sacrifice its life if necessary to protect its young by feigning injury to draw away predators.

The two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments in the Bible. The three French hens stood for faith, hope and love. The four calling birds were the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The five gold rings, which you probably sang the loudest because it was the catchiest line of all, recalled the Torah or Law, the first five books of the Old Testaments which describe man’s fall into sin. The six geese-a-laying represented the six days of creation.

Seven swans a-swimming represented the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The eight maids a-milking were the eight beatitudes. The nine ladies dancing were the nine fruits of the Spirit. The 10 lords a-leaping were the 10 commandments. The 11 pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful disciples. Finally, the 12 drummers drumming symbolised the twelve points of belief in the Apostles’ Creed.

This theory was debunked for a number of reasons. Christians were not so restricted from practicing their faith that they had to conceal messages in a song, and they wouldn’t have been able to celebrate Christmas or sing such carols. Also, the breeze, bouncy nature of the tune hardly fit with the character of the church at that time and it would not have helped people remember the tenets.

Honestly speaking, we would just like for it to be a motivating Christmas carol in which the singer brags about all the cool gifts they received from their true love during the 12 days of Christmas.

Regardless of how the carol was formed, feel free to dig into your Christmas rice and sing it to your heart’s content.

Merry Christmas!

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