The 12 Days of Christmas

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Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor
of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

On Monday, January 2nd, 2006, The Daily Press, a morning newspaper in Ashland, Wisconsin, published an article, “The true meaning of the ’12 Days of Christmas’: ‘Eternal Perspectives,’” written by Sally Bair.  The article’s purpose is to tell the true story behind this famous Christmas Carol.

According to the story, the song was written to teach religious truths to Roman Catholic children.  Since several items in the interpretation of the song deal with the Old Testament, I was interested in the many lessons the song has to teach. Below is a copy of the article published in The Daily Press.

The familiar, nonsensical-sounding song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” is traditionally sung—and celebrated with gifts—after Christmas, the time when the magi are believed to have visited the baby Jesus.

The famous song was written with hidden meanings in mind for Roman Catholic children.  Between 1558 and 1829, Catholics were prohibited in England to practice their faith.  Punishments for being caught with anything in writing that proved one’s adherence to the Catholic faith meant imprisonment, hanging from a gallows, or worse.  The author of The Twelve Days of Christmas wrote the song to help young Catholics secretly learn—and memorize—the tenets of their faith.

“On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me” refers to God himself as our True Love and Me as every baptized believer.  The Partridge in a Pear Tree is Jesus Christ who symbolizes a mother bird, which feigns injury to protect her helpless nestlings.  The symbol comes from Jesus’ words written in Luke 13:34, “O Jerusalem, Jerusale,[sic] how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!”

The other “gifts” in the song hold these meanings:

2 Turtle Doves (the Old and New Testaments, bearing witness to God’s redeeming work of salvation to mankind);

3 French Hens (the virtues: faith, hope, and love; and the trinity: God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit);

4 Calling Birds (the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which proclaim the Good News of God’s reconciliation to himself through his Son Jesus Christ);

5 Gold Rings (the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament which give the historic account of mankind’s sinful failure and God’s responding grace);

6 Geese A-laying (the six days of creation that confess God as creator and sustainer of the world);

7 Swans A-swimming (the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion);

8 Maids A-milking (the eight beatitudes as listed in Matthew 5:3-10);

9 Ladies Dancing (the nine fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control);

10 Lords A-leaping (the ten commandments);

11 Pipers Piping (the 11 faithful apostles, excluding Judas Iscariot, the 12th apostle who betrayed Jesus with a kiss);

12 Drummers Drumming (the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed).

Lord, we thank you that today in American we can profess our faith in Jesus Christ openly and without fear.  We ask for your special blessing on Christians in other lands who are persecuted for your Namesake.  Amen. 

This explanation of the meaning of the words of the song would be of great value if it were true.  However, this spiritualization of ‘The 12 Days of Christmas” is one of those urban legends that is circulated through the Internet and passed on from person to person through email.

There are several lessons to be learned from this article.  The lesson that every journalist should learn is this: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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