After a little bit of research on the subject (much thanks to Douglas Anderson's Hymns & Carols of Christmas website) I have learned enough about The Twelve Days of Christmas to write a book, never mind a blog post. And, no, the background of the carol may not be exactly what I had thought. But it does have a fascinating history steeped in the joy and merriment of the Christmas season which traveled through several countries before becoming an international phenomenon.
The song probably had its origin as a French carol and was sung as a sort of "chanson de geste" by the medieval troubadours of France, according to The Folk Carol of England by Douglas Brice.
Elizabeth Poston writes in The Second Penguin Book of Christmas Carols that the earliest written version of the song appears in "Twelth Day", a 13th-century manuscript located at Trinity College, Cambridge. The Twelve Days of Christmas was first published in a children's book called Mirth & Mischief in 1780, with its first appearance in a collection of Christmas songs coming in 1868.
Just to clarify, the "twelve days of Christmas" refers to the period of celebration between Christmas day itself and Epiphany on January 6. The song was originally sung by the French on Epiphany, otherwise known as Twelth Night.
In its more recent history, The Twelve Days of Christmas song has become a favorite throughout the traditional Christmas season and now our modern extended secular Christmas season which gets rolling in late November (and perhaps even earlier) in some places.
As for the meaning behind the symbols, here is the story as best I could find it. It turns out that a Catholic priest by the name of Fr. Hal Stockert had done some research for a project years back. In the process he came across some letters from Irish Jesuit priests to the motherhouse in Rheims, France. According to Fr. Stockert's memory (he hasn't been able to relocate the letters) some of the documents had mentions of the symbolism of The Twelve Days of Christmas being used as a secret catechism for persecuted Catholics at the time. Fr. Stockert posted his findings online not "as a doctoral thesis", as he put it, but "simply as some delicious tidbit [he] thought the world would be delighted to share over a holiday season". (See more about his story at Catholic Culture or Catholic Information Network. For another interesting discussion on the topic and a list of the symbols, see this CRI/Voice webpage.)
So it turns out that the carol, not necessarily written as a tool of faith, may have actually been used that way. Whether or not this was the case, thanks to this song we now have an interesting and memorable way to remember various aspects of faith.
Here are the symbols, according to the Catholic Culture webpage:
- true love = God Himself
- partridge in a pear tree = Jesus Christ
- 2 turtle doves = Old and New Testaments
- 3 French hens = faith, hope and charity (the theological virtues)
- 4 calling birds = the four Gospels and/or the four evangelists
- 5 golden rings = the first five books of the Old Testament (Pentateuch)
- 6 geese a-laying = the six days of creation
- 7 swans a-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and/or the seven sacraments
- 8 maids a-milking = the eight beatitudes
- 9 ladies dancing = the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit
- 10 lords a-leaping = the ten commandments
- 11 pipers piping = the eleven faithful apostles
- 12 drummers drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed
As the twelve days of Christmas draw near, I hope you'll take the time to read the story of the "Partridge's" birth written by one of the "four calling birds" in one of the "turtle doves". Make sure you obey the "ten lords a leaping", and I wish you a holiday season filled with "French hens!"