First published in 1996-ish for the first website I created in 1996, The Octopus’s Garden. Republished here for the sake of an archive of that article.
One of our fondest Christmas carols, that which sings of lords leaping and turtle doves, may have little known roots in the Christian faith. As much as Christmas remains, fundamentally, a religious holiday, grown up around the Christian recognition of the birth and celebration of Christ, we can ramble countless carols steeped in the religious holiday from “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” to “Silent Night.” But that just wouldn’t do for the Rare Exception. What carol’s story would come as a surprise to most and of interest to all?
The Twelve Days of Christmas
For the hundreds of years between 1558 and 1829, following King Henry VIII’s departure from the Roman Catholic Church, the English Anglican Reformation succeeded in suppressing the Roman Catholic faith in England. Catholics were not permitted to, among many things, openly practice their faith or hold real estate on its behalf. It was in this early example of censorship and repression that the twelve days emerged, from the celebration of the birth of Jesus on December 25th through the feast of the Baptism of the Lord on January 6th.
Consider then that “my true love” is not a boyfriend or girlfriend but God and that the gifts given are those bestowed upon baptism.
- The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ.
- Two turtle doves are the Old and New Testaments.
- Three French hens represent faith, hope and love.
- Four calling birds are the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke & John.
- Five golden rings refer to the Torah or Law, the first five books of the Old Testament.
- Six geese a-laying are the six days of creation.
- Seven swans a-swimming embody the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit – Prophesy, Serving, Teaching, Exhortation, Contribution, Leadership, and Mercy.
- Eight maids a-milking are the eight beatitudes.
- Nine ladies dancing are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit – Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self Control.
- Ten lords a-leaping clearly the ten commandments.
- Eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven remaining disciples.
- Twelve drummers drumming symbolize the Apostles’ Creed’s twelve points of belief.
It is said that this catechism for Catholics presents Christ as a mother partridge which feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings. The only flaw we find in the legend is the premise that Catholics created the carol out of repression from their Christian countrymen. What cause would other English Christians have to stamp out references to Jesus Christ and the Ten Commandments in such a way that Catholics in particular couldn’t mention them? The song would be no more born of English Catholics than any Christian of the time. More to the point, while this history is widely circulated online, there is little evidence to support the premise with one of the oldest references, in fact, alluding to a fictitious nature.
Alarming though is that if untrue, the dual meaning is representative of a religions’ molding a culture to suit its needs. During the Christmas holiday, the story of the deal meaning proliferates the 12 Catholic Days throughout Catholic churches, presented as fact. History rewritten to suit religion? I, for one, prefer not to consider the truth in this case but to remain… faithful, and enjoy the spirit in which the history is enlightened.
The Twelve Days of Christmas remains a classic which continues to grow in popularity with each year that passes. The “price of The 12 Days of Christmas“, which has been tracked by PNC for the past 24 years, increased 8.1% in 2008. Led by the exorbitant cost of swans which increased 33%, your acquisition of 8 maids a-milking and a few french hens would run well over $86,000. What of the apparent recession of 2008? The cost of Five Golden Rings fell 11.4%.