What About The 12 Days of Christmas?

12 daysThe American culture is very young.  We think of things like baseball and the Fourth of July as being ancient traditions, because our country has barely existed for more than 200 years.  Our Christmas celebrations and even our American Santa Claus are also rather new compared to European traditions.  If the Roman Catholic Church were a human adult, then the SBC would still be in diapers.

Many European cultures, including those of Eastern orthodox faith, celebrate Christmas from December 25 until the January 6 day of Epiphany.  The real season continues until February 2, ending in a celebration known as Candlemas which celebrates Jesus’ presentation at the temple.  In America, our celebration begins earlier and earlier each year as retailers attempt to get their merchandise moving and improve their bottom line for the quarter.  The idea that the birth of Christ is the beginning of the season, rather than the end of it, would be unusual here.

What about the song?

The song titled 12 Days of Christmas is possibly British in origin, possibly French, and is really a type of game that children play.  Each verse becomes increasingly complicated as you must remember what came before.  You could either win or loose – a kiss, a piece of candy – by successfully remembering (or forgetting) the previous items.  The song was first published in England in 1780 but is thought to be much older.  And here’s where things get interesting.

According to legend, the 12 Days of Christmas was more than a fun little game for children but also a mnemonic device for memorizing the tenants of the Catholic faith.  Catholicism was illegal in England for nearly 300 years and the song was supposedly code, the symbols representing something like this:

  • A partridge in a pear tree: Jesus
  • Two turtle doves: The Old and New Testaments
  • Three French hens: The three Biblical magi
  • Four calling birds: The four Gospels
  • Five gold rings: The Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament
  • Six geese a-laying: The six days of Creation
  • Seven swans a-swimming: Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit
  • Eight maids a-milking: The eight Beatitudes
  • Nine ladies dancing: Nine fruits of the Holy Spirit
  • Ten lords a-leaping: The Ten Commandments
  • Eleven pipers piping: The eleven faithful Apostles
  • Twelve drummers drumming: The twelve points of the Apostles’ Creed

But there are a few problems with this idea.  Catholicism was outlawed in favor of the Church of England (Anglican Church).  The items to be remembered by the mnemonic are held in common among most Christians, Protestant and Catholic alike; we all read the same four Gospels, for instance.  None of the 12 things listed are uniquely Roman Catholic.  The purpose of a mnemonic device is to make easier the memorization of something difficult.  There is no direct or obvious correlation between the symbols and what they represent, and so memorizing one list of 12 things would actually be easier than using this song and memorizing two lists.  What I’m saying is, this wouldn’t help.

Where did the idea of a smuggled mnemonic device come from?  It first appeared in a short article “How to Decode the Twelve Days of Christmas” in 1979.  The legend, if true, should have been passed around for hundreds of years just like the song but no mention of these symbolisms exist prior to 1979.  The author of the article, Hugh D. McKeller, later admitted the associations were his own.  You will still encounter the story presented as truth, or legendary truth, from time to time as I did just a couple of years ago.  The song is hundreds of years old, and I’m not saying the associations with things Christian isn’t neat; but it was not smuggled into England as a secretly coded message for good little RCC children, if that’s what you’ve heard.

More at Snopes and Wikipedia.

4 thoughts on “What About The 12 Days of Christmas?

  1. I’ve come across this legend on the internet before and it always seemed to me to be rather contrived. But then, the internet has never been one to let the facts get in the way of a good story!

  2. I read a story about its provenance in Ireland. According to the Catholic faith was outlawed there by the English government and priests were not allowed to teach their faith to children. Neither were they allowed to teach the children to read and write. That much is fact. However, I assume the story is much like the one about Catholicism in England–apocryphal.

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