The Twelve Days of Christmas

We have all heard the song, The 12 Days of Christmas, a delightful but apparently nonsensical rhyme set to music.

However, it is a good deal more than just a repetitious melody with pretty phrases and a list of strange gifts.

RTO-mini2 The Twelve Days of ChristmasFree Book: Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society—Where We’ve Been, How We Got Here, and Where We Need to Go


The_Twelve_Days_of_Christmas The Twelve Days of Christmas

St. Thomas More parts with his daughter, Margaret, to be executed for being faithful to the Pope and the Catholic Church.

From the year 1558 to 1829 Catholics in England were prohibited by law from the practice of their Faith. The religion was officially illegal until Parliament finally enacted the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829. Until then it was a crime to be a Catholic and to be faithful to the pope.

The 12 Days of Christmas’ was written as one of the ‘catechetical songs’ to help young Catholics learn the tenets of their faith. It was a memory aid, when to be caught with anything Popish would not only get you imprisoned, but possibly hanged, shortened by a head, or even subjected to the awful ordeal of being hanged, drawn and quartered.


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The 12 days refers to the period between Christmas Day and the Feast of the Epiphany, traditionally celebrated on the 6th of January

The twelve days refers to the period between Christmas Day and the Feast of the Epiphany, which is traditionally celebrated on the 6th of January.


The gifts referred to in the song are in fact coded references to the teachings of the Catholic faith. The ‘true love’ mentioned is God himself. The ‘me’ who receives the presents refers to every baptised person. The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ, the Son of God.




The_Twelve_Days_of_Christmas-6-300x164 The Twelve Days of ChristmasIn the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge which feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings.

The pear tree represents the cross.


The other symbols are as follows:

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Two turtle doves refers to the old and new testament. For centuries the Jews offered doves to God. The two doves remind us of the sacrifice Our Lady and St. Joseph offered in the temple at Jerusalem on behalf of Our Lord.






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Three French hens refers to the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. These hens were very expensive during the 16th century and only the rich could buy them. They symbolised the three presents offered by the magi to Our Lord:
– gold, the most precious of metals;
– incense, used in solemn religious ceremonies;
– and myrrh, an exquisite spice.



Four calling birds refers to the four gospels. The gospels contain the life of Our Lord and His teachings. Just like birds singing in a clear and loud voice, the four evangelists spread the good news of the life, death and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ throughout the world.

Five golden rings refers to the five first books of the old testament, called the pentateuch, which gives the history of man’s fall from grace. The Jews considered these books more valuable than gold. It also reminded people of the five decades of the holy rosary.

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Six geese a-laying refers to the six days of creation. They also remind us how the Word of God gave life to the earth.




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Seven swans a-swimming refers to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and the seven sacraments. With the sacraments and the gifts, the faithful can sustain themselves in times of persecution.

Just as cygnets change from ugly ducklings to become beautiful swans, so also does the grace of God transform us from mere creatures into children of God.



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Eight maids a-milking refers to the eight beatitudes preached by Our Lord in the sermon on the mount. The beatitudes, just like milk, feed and nourish the faithful.






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Nine ladies dancing refers to the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness and temperance. In the same way that ladies dance joyfully, so also can Christians rejoice with a life transformed by the fruits of the Holy Spirit.



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Ten lords a-leaping refers to the ten commandments of the law of God. The lords were men of authority to govern and discipline the people.




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Eleven pipers piping refers to the eleven apostles who remained faithful to Our Lord after the infamous treason of Judas. As children follow the piper joyfully, the disciples accompanied Jesus. They also called others to follow Him, and they play an eternal song: the message of salvation and life after death.




The_Twelve_Days_of_Christmas-16-300x200 The Twelve Days of ChristmasTwelve drummers drumming refers to the twelve articles of the creed. In the same way that drummers play sonorously so others can accompany the rhythm of the music, the creed reveals the faith of those who are Christians.




  • Inez

    This is so spiritual & beautiful. My grandchildren surprised me each of the 12 days with a small gift three yeas ago and I did not find out who was leaving gifts at my door until January 6th. I in some way will share these 12 days with them. Thank U!

  • tom721

    As a student of history, I am completely nonplussed at my own ignorance of this story. But it makes perfect sense, in light of Henry’s battle with the Pope, and his starting his own church, where he himself appointed the head, the arch-bishop of Cantebury.

  • RWDave

    I knew the story behind the song, but couldn’t remember each symbol. Thank you for this! It makes what used to be one of my least favorite carols into something that all Catholics can take a certain amount of pride in!

  • Bud Savoie

    This supposed explanation comes around just about every Christmas. Can you find any evidence of it contemporary with the persecution events for which it is supposed to have been written? No one has yet come up with any cogent evidence of this Catholics-in-hiding fable. I’m guessing that this “explanation” was concocted in mid-20th century. First of all, none of the gifts and their supposed “real meanings” would have been any problem to Protestants of the time; no secrecy needed. Secondly, the truths are more easily remembered than the “code” gifts. Thirdly, Catholic truths are taught year round, not just at Christmas. Fourth, and to repeat myself, there must be authoritative written evidence of sufficient antiquity that this song was written for such a purpose–and there is none. It falls into the category of “explanations” of nursery rhymes that are pure invention and unsupported by evidence (e.g., that Ring-Around-the-Rosy refers to the Black Plague).

    • Washington

      Agreed! I was so inspired a few years ago when I heard the ‘real’ meaning behind the song and bummed soon after when I discovered it was all an urban legend. The author of this article’s opinion on the controversy would really be appreciated!

      • Jameson

        Snopes is your source? Let’s not be ridiculous.

        • Washington

          Charity always gives the benefit of the doubt. So I will assume you don’t realize how snarky and uncharitable your comments come across.
          No disagreement about Snopes’ integrity — the argument against the 12 Days being catechetical are clearly laid out so it is an easy reference to begin a discussion, so don’t get hung up on the source. As I have yet to see any type of rebuttal, I have chalked this song up to being allegorical in nature, which there is nothing wrong with that, but I am asking for the author’s opinion with only the intentions of discovering what the truth really might be. Unless you are the author, I’m not interested in your opinion on this.

    • Jameson

      Obviously, you are clueless to the fact that many peoples throughout human history who lived under oppression wrote poetry and songs that were recited and sung publicly, even by their oppressors, using clever codes and symbolism to make a mockery of unjust laws.

  • Frank r

    I remember hearing this explanation of the 12days of Christmas back when I was in catechism class in the early 70s from my God Mother. She said it was a way for catechists to remember to teach the basis christian doctrines that couldn’t be written down in Catholic catechisms in England in the 17th century. It’s not that these basic Catholic teachings are not also basic Anglican / Church of England teachings, because high church Anglicans would argue they are, but that Catholics could not have Catholic catechisms like the catechism of the Council of Trent, which also gave anathemas to schisms such as the one Henry the VIII did in England.

  • Paul

    This is an interesting interpretation of this carol. The carol itself sounds very English in its references, and old-fashioned – maids-a-milking, pipers piping, lords-a-leaping etc. it is also rather long compared to other carols, and, apart from its title, seems to contain no other reference to Christmas. Hence a question
    might reasonably occur to a contemporary listener, what does this have to do with Christmas at all? Anyone who saw the recent dramatisation of Hilary Mantel’s period ‘novel’ ‘Wolf Hall’, about the life of Henry VIII’s advisor, the commoner Thomas Cromwell (no relation to Oliver), would come to see from a modern standpoint how precarious life could be in that era, and how capricious was the favour of monarchs. One also wonders in the light of this dramatisation, whether political correctness isn’t just a modern term for an ever present concern that the open expression of unpopular political opinions could pesent a threat to one’s livelihood, if not to one’s life. Yet how then was it possible to express oneself at all. A cryptic formulation would have presented a creative opportunity