The holiday carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” has been on repeat in my head since I started watching yuletide movies in August. Should I say I’m sorry in advance for its now being in yours? Please accept my apologies. I did a fairly lengthy (that’s an exaggeration) Google search trying to discern its origins. The first story I came across was an endearing one and, regrettably, not true. It said the song’s verses have two levels of meaning: the superficial and the metaphoric for Roman Catholics who were not allowed to practice their faith openly in England between 1558 and 1829.
On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
a partridge in a pear tree.
My “true love” is Jesus Christ who, born on Christmas Day, brings Love—the agape kind—into the world. The partridge also represents Him for this bird will protect its young by feigning injury to lure predators away. The New and Old Testaments are represented by the two turtle doves while the three French hens stand for faith, hope, and love. The gospels, of which there are four—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—are the calling birds. The golden rings echo the first five books of the Old Testament, the six days of creation are represented by the geese a-laying, and the seven spiritual gifts mentioned in Romans 12:6-8—prophecy, serving, teaching, exhortation, contribution, leadership, and mercy—are the swans a-swimming. The eight maids of milking stand for the beatitudes in Matthew 5:3-10. Nine ladies dancing represent the fruits of the Holy Spirit found in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The Ten Commandments are our lords a-leaping, the eleven pipers piping symbolize the faithful Apostles, and the 12 points of belief in the Apostles’ Creed stand for the drummers drumming.
The truth is this: The song’s origins are unknown—no writer to name and no double meaning to be found. What is known for sure is that December 25 ushers in 12 days of celebration that commemorate how God, in the words of the Catholic liturgy, “restored the dignity of human nature” and “humbled Himself to share our humanity.” He sent us so much.
May this season, one of charity, be a reminder of all the many gifts He has blessed us with and what we can do with them. Recall His words in John 14:12: “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father.”