|"The Twelve Days of Christmas" depicted by artist Xavier Romero-Frias|
The song I've chosen here at A Light That Shines Again is a well-known favorite, yet behind the words we know so well there may be hidden meaning related to Irish history.
You'll find the lyrics in Irish and English below. Scroll down further to read my about my research into the background of this favorite carol.
To all of my readers: may your twelve days of Christmas, and your coming year, be merry!
Dha Lá Deag na Nollag (or) The Twelve Days of Christmas
Ar an chéad lá Nollag thug mo leannán dom patraisc i gcrann piorraí.
Ar an dara lá Nollag thug mo leannán dom dhá fhéarán bhreaca.
Ar an tríú lá Nollag thug mo leannán dom trí chearc fhrancacha.
Ar an ceathrú lá Nollag thug mo leannán dom ceithre éan ag glaoch.
Ar an cúigiú lá Nollag thug mo leannán dom cúig fháinne óra.
Ar an séú lá Nollag thug mo leannán dom sé ghé ag breith.
Ar an seachtú lá Nollag thug mo leannán dom seacht n-eala ag snámh.
Ar an t-ochtú lá Nollag thug mo leannán dom ochtar cailín ag bleán.
Ar an naoú lá Nollag thug mo leannán dom naonúr ban ag damhsa.
Ar an deichiú lá Nollag thug mo leannán dom deichniúr tiarna ag léim.
Ar an t-aonú lá déag Nollag thug mo leannán dom aon phíobaire dhéag ag seinm.
Ar an dara lá déag Nollag thug mo leannán dom dháréag drumadóir ag drumadóireacht.
On the 1st day of Christmas my true love gave to me a partridge in a pear tree.
On the 2nd day of Christmas my true love gave to me two turtle doves.
On the 3rd day of Christmas my true love gave to me three french hens.
On the 4th day of Christmas my true love gave to me four calling birds.
On the 5th day of Christmas my true love gave to me five gold rings.
On the 6th day of Christmas my true love gave to me six geese a laying.
On the 7th day of Christmas my true love gave to me seven swans a swimming.
On the 8th day of Christmas my true love gave to me eight maids a milking.
On the 9th day of Christmas my true love gave to me nine maids a dancing.
On the 10th day of Christmas my true love gave to me ten lords a leaping.
On the 11th day of Christmas my true love gave to me eleven pipers pipering.
On the 12th day of Christmas my true love gave to me twelve drummers drumming.
In the spirit of the true meaning of Christmas, I was planning to write a post about the well-loved carol The Twelve Days of Christmas. I had learned several years ago that the objects throughout the carol had hidden meanings - they represented various aspects of the Christian faith. I understood that the carol had been written for use by persecuted English and Irish Catholics during the time of England's Protestant reformation. Or so I thought...
After a little bit of research on the subject (much thanks to Douglas Anderson's Hymns and 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
The article originally appeared here at A Light That Shines Again as part of Thomas MacEntee's Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories 2007 and 2009.