Much debate goes on as to the origins of the song “The 12 Days of Christmas.” They range from it being a secret song to teach catechism to youngsters, to rumors that it was a “code” used to preserve some of the fundamental beliefs of the church. Some say it was a spinoff of a 1780 French nursery rhyme tune that was used as a memory and forfeit game. As early as 1625 there was a song written and played called “A New Dial.” The 12 Days of Christmas seems to most likely be an idea that is similar in thought. In any event, listen to some of the modern day “folklore” about the meaning of this great Christmas song…
- 1st Day: The partridge in a pear tree is Christ Jesus upon the Cross. In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge because she would feign injury to decoy a predator away from her nestlings. She was even willing to die for them. The tree symbolizes the fall of the human race through the sin of Adam and Eve. It is also the symbol of its redemption by Jesus Christ on the tree of the Cross.
- 2nd Day: The “two turtle doves” refers to the Old and New Testaments.
- 3rd Day: The “three French hens” stand for faith, hope and love—the three gifts of the Spirit that abide (1 Corinthians 13).
- 4th Day: The “four calling birds” refer to the four evangelists who wrote the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—which sing the song of salvation through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
- 5th Day: The “five golden rings” represents the first five books of the Bible, also called the Jewish Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
- 6th Day: The “six geese a-laying” are the six days of creation.
- 7th Day: The “seven swans’ a-swimming” refer to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord.
- 8th Day: The “eight maids a milking” reminded children of the eight beatitudes listed in the Sermon on the Mount.
- 9th Day: The “nine ladies dancing” were the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit found in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
- 10th Day: The “ten lord’s a-leaping” represents the Ten Commandments
- 11th Day: The “eleven pipers piping” refers to the eleven faithful apostles.
- 12th Day: The ‘twelve drummers drumming” were the twelve points of belief expressed in the Apostles’ Creed: belief in God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; that Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, made man, crucified, died and arose on the third day; that He sits at the right hand of the Father and will come again; the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting.
You know, many of the symbols of Christianity were not originally religious…take the cross for instance. It wasn’t a really warm and fuzzy present to get back in 33 AD. Even the present date of Christmas is at its best flawed, but was appropriated from contemporary culture by the Christian Faith as vehicles of worship and proclamation. Perhaps, when all is said and done, historical accuracy is not really the point. Perhaps more important is that Christians can celebrate their rich heritage and God’s grace through one more avenue this Christmas.
Now, when you hear, what we sometimes call only a secular “nonsense song” this year, may we all be reminded one more way of the grace of God working in transforming ways in our lives and in our world? After all, is that not the meaning of Christmas anyway?