Twelve Days of Christmas Revisited
Sometime back, one of the members of my old high school chat group sent us a fascinating story concerning the origin of the Christmas carol, ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas.’
I had heard it before, but I’d forgotten much of the story.
My old friend refreshed it for me.
Maybe you’ve heard it, but if you’re like me, you haven’t heard all of the story.
From 1558 until 1829, Roman Catholics in England were not permitted to practice their faith openly. Consequently, the story goes, someone during that era wrote the carol as a catechism song to aid young Catholics remember the tenets of their religion.
It has two levels of meaning: the surface meaning plus a hidden meaning known only to members of their church. Each element in the carol has a code word for a religious reality, which the children could remember.
1. The partridge- Jesus/God
2. Two turtle doves –the Old and New Testaments
3. Three French hens-Faith, Hope, and Charity
4. Four calling birds-the Four Gospels
5. Five Golden rings-the first five books of the Old Testament, the ‘Pentateuch’, which gives the history of man’s fall from grace.
6. Six geese a-laying-the six days of creation
7. Seven swans a-swimming-the Seven Sacraments
8. Eight maids a-milking-the Beatitudes
9. Nine ladies dancing were the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10. Ten lords a-leaping-the Ten Commandments
11. Eleven Pipe rs piping-the Apostles
12. Twelve drummers drumming-twelve points in the Apostle’s Creed.
Fascinating interpretation isn’t it? But now, let me show you what else I ran across while researching the carol.
Now it is true that in 1529 Anglican England did abolish the practice of ‘old worship’, Catholicism.
To my surprise, I had a few facts pointed out that indicated that story was not the real explanation of the origin of the song.
For example, the Anglican (Protestant) and Catholic Bibles, King James and Douai-Reims, respectively, both contain the Old and New Testaments, the five books of the Pentateuch, the Four Gospels, the six days of Creation, and the Ten Commandments.
According to one source, since these concepts symbolized in the song were shared by both Catholics and Anglicans, what reason could there be for secretly encoding a song containing those concepts?
True, the two groups used different Bibles, and given the harsh punishment during those 270 years, a Catholic didn’t want to be caught with any Bible except the King James Version.
So, what was the purpose of the song? Did it have one?
According to Snopes, an 1780 children’s book, Mirth Without Mischief, contained the song, which had been around for many years. The verses were presented as a ‘memory and forfeits’ game in which the leader recited a verse, and then each player in turn recited the next. If one erred, he had to pay a penalty, such as offering a kiss or a cookie.
In addition, the song was from France for several of the objects mentioned in it are of French origin, not English, the French hen in particular. Another, the partridge, was not introduced into England until the 1770s, 240 odd years after the condemnation of Catholicism and the alleged origins of the song.
So, to borrow from Paul Harvey, ‘now you know the rest of the story.’
But, you know, somehow, I prefer the fiction, not the fact.