One of the most cherished traditions during this holy season of Christmas is the singing of Christmas carols. As in the other most solemn feasts of the church, choirs scramble to pull our their best pieces to sing in honor of our Savior’s birth. But most people are satisfied with the more simple, familiar carols that have been sung by many for centuries, such as ‘Silent Night’, ‘Away In A Manger’, and ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’. One of these, and one of the oldest of many, is the song ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas.’ Some people theme parties in the days after Christmas after the verses in this song, compose hilarious twists on the verses, or use them to count the days between Christmas day and Epiphany.
But if I told you that this popular Christmas carol was actually a Catholic Catechism in disguise, would you enjoy half so much the absurd red-nosed reindeer that occasionally butts in on the song, or the eight different polish Christmas dishes prepared by a squash and presented to this tune?
During the time of the protestant reformation, persecution of Catholics was very high. In England, housing a priest would end in death at the government’s hands if you were discovered. Many Catholic parents would rather have died a thousand times over than see their children turn to this new, heretical Church of England. Faithfully, they catechized their children in their faith, and were very rarely presented with the opportunity to see a priest. Even then, the instruction had to be of the utmost secrecy, lest someone discover their true faith. Many songs , such as ‘The Seven Joys of Mary’ are almost nursery-rhyme tunes, only with facts about the faith set in them, to better fix it in the children’s mind. Ingenious Catholics employed such a tactic now, only in a sort of “code” that all would understand. The song, The Twelve days of Christmas, had cryptic verses, each representing a different point in Catholic teaching which the rest of the world, even today, took merely as a quaint, secular carol just like all the others.
The meaning of the verses in ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’:
- Partridge in a pear tree- Christ on the cross
- Two turtle doves- the two sections of the Bible: the Old and the New Testament
- Three French hens- the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity
- Four calling birds- the four gospels
- Five golden rings- the first five books of the Bible
- Six geese a’ laying- the six days of creation
- Seven swans a’ swimming- the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit
- Eight maids a’ milking- the eight beatitudes
- Nine ladies dancing- nine fruits of the Holy Spirit (some were condensed to fit this number)
- Ten lords a’ leaping- the Ten Commandments
- Eleven pipers piping- the eleven faithful apostles
- Twelve drummers drumming- the twelve points of belief in the Apostle’s Creed
Holy Infant Christ, have mercy on us!