It surprises many to learn that the Twelve Days of Christmas (birds and all) are not the days leading up to Christmas, but the days of Christmas, beginning on Christmas Day and leading up to Epiphany.
First off, the month of December – contrary to popular belief – is not Christmas time. The roughly four weeks preceding Christmas Day, as you’ll recognize from your calendar, wreath or candles, is the season of Advent.
The word advent literally means ‘coming,’ and refers to the Son of God coming to earth in three ways: In the past, as the babe in the manger, in the present, into our lives, and in the future, on the Last Day. Advent is a time of preparation, preparing our heart, mind and spirit for Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Greatest Gift Ever Given. If you want a bit of a deeper dive into Advent, you can read more here.
So, even if you did know that the time before Christmas is Advent, you might not know that the time after Christmas… is still Christmas! That’s right, in the Church, Christmas is a season, albeit a brief one lasting just twelve days. Hey, that sounds familiar! But why twelve?
Just as December 25th was established long ago as the date of Jesus birth (which had nothing to do with paganism), so too was January 6th established as the date when the magi (wise men) arrived in Bethlehem to visit the newly born Jesus – a date known as Epiphany. Epiphany represents the promise of the Jewish Messiah being opened up to the whole of the Gentile (non-Jewish) world.
So, now that you know the time of Christmas begins on Christmas and lasts for twelve days, you’re ready to start singing about weird gifts involving maids and pipers and a whole lot of birds, right?
Yeah, it’s a weird song, that’s for sure. It also seems to be one of those Christmas carols that most children love and most adults can’t stand. Apart from that, though, it’s just another of many nonreligious Christmas carols, like the ones about Frosty and Rudolph, isn’t it?
Well, perhaps we’d better go back to the origins of this silly little song, and figure out where it came from…
I’m Henry the 8th I am
All the way back in 16th century England, after Martin Luther kicked off the Protestant Reformation, King Henry VIII had a reformation of his own. Seeking an annulment from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, he was denied by Pope Clement VII. The angry Henry responded by denying the authority of the Pope as the head of the Catholic (universal) Church and declaring himself to be the head of the Church of England. He was excommunicated for this action, and he, in turn, excommunicated Clement and outlawed (Roman) Catholicism in England.
Legend then has it that (Roman) Catholicism in England went underground and continued meeting, teaching and worshiping in secret. As a means of secretly teaching children the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, a poem written by Catholic clerics was adapted into a Christmas carol that could be easily sung, was fun to sing, and had enough repetition for the teachings hidden within to stick.
In those days, Catholic children understood that true love, pure and unconditional, comes from God. Thus, they knew that this song was not about a romantic suitor showering his crush with an overwhelming abundance of the oddest assortment of gifts, but about the loving blessings given to us by God.
A Partridge In a Pear Tree
To begin with, the center of the Christian faith, Christ’s death and resurrection, is the anchor to the song, repeated in every single verse. A mother partridge will sacrifice herself to save her defenseless chicks by luring predators away from her nest. In the same way, Jesus laid down His life to save ours by allowing Himself to be crucified on a cross, which was made from a tree – perhaps even a pear tree…
The two turtle doves stand for the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Doves also represent peace and truth, which God’s Word gives to us.
Three French hens may not seem like it today, but in the 16th century, they were a meal fit for a king. Indeed, French hens were among the finest and most expensive food items available. Thus, they represent the three gifts of the magi, gifts truly fit for a king: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
If you’re now beginning to think in theological terms, you might have begun to guess that the four calling birds are the four Gospels (or, more specifically, their authors), which proclaim the history of Jesus and His ministry from the manger to the empty tomb. Thus, you could think of the birds’ names as being quite literally Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Ba dum bum bum
Staying in the Bible, the five gold rings stand for the Pentateuch, or Torah. These are the first five books of the Old Testament, believed to have been authored by Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This beginning of the Word of God reminds us of God’s great purpose in creating the universe and everything in it, as well as mankind’s fall into sin and rebellion – but also God’s promise that He would send a Savior to redeem creation and mankind.
Speaking of creation, the Bible tells us that God created the universe in six days. With eggs being a symbol for new life throughout history, the six geese-a-laying are a neat symbol for creation.
For the seven swans-a-swimming, we stay in Scripture and turn to the Gifts of the Spirit. These are prophecy (speaking God’s Truth), service, teaching, exhortation (urging people to act by encouraging, rather than shaming), generosity, leadership and mercy (or caring). Swans were (and still are) considered by many to be among the most graceful and beautiful birds, thus, when you walk with God, the gifts of the spirit flow gracefully like a swan across the water.
How Is He Giving Her People?
The eight maids-a-milking does get a little more complicated. To begin with, the eight represents the Beatitudes, taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. In 16th century England, there was no lower status job than working in a barn, especially with cattle. A female servant assigned to this task would have been of little or no value to her master. Yet Jesus, the King of kings, died even for her, who has priceless value in the eyes of God, as do we all.
The nine ladies dancing are those who rejoice in serving their Lord, showing in their living faith the Fruits of the Spirit. These nine outward reflections of a faithful heart are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
By now you get the picture, so if I asked you what the ten lords-a-leaping represent, I’m guessing you probably said the Ten Commandments – and you’d be right. Because an earthly lord (master or ruler) was expected to be honorable and just, upholding the law in his area of responsibility, it made sense to associate him with the Law of God.
The eleven pipers piping may not come to mind immediately, but once you see it, they are as obvious as anything else in the song. There were twelve Apostles, of course, except that one, Judas, betrayed Jesus and rejected the faith. Thus, the eleven remaining Apostles were the ones who took the Gospel message of Jesus to the world.
Finally, the twelve drummers drumming represent the twelve parts of the Apostles’ Creed, the summary of faith taught to all catechumens (students of the faith) and confessed by the whole Church. The drum may have represented the rhythm by which the creed was recited, or the pace of the Christian life, with footsteps guided by faith.
That’s a Whole Lot of Gifts!
Now, whether or not this was actually used to covertly teach the faith or not, the symbolism is fascinating – and it is truly a shame that the carol created as a way of learning and remembering the chief parts of the Christian faith is now considered nothing more than a silly, secular carol about birds.
Now, your mission – should you choose to accept it – is to see if, the next time this song comes on the radio, you can remember what all of the symbols mean. You just might find yourself growing in your Christian walk by singing about some poor woman who received 364 really loud gifts from her true love!
Now, I’m off to see if I can figure out what the 99 bottles of beer on the wall represent…