“The Twelve Days of Christmas” carol – the hidden meaning.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Although the Christmas ‘season’ starts with Advent and ends with the Baptism of Jesus (or even until the feast of the Presentation, on 2nd February), the Christmas ‘Twelve Days of celebration’ commences with the Nativity of Our Blessed Lord on 25th December, and ends on the feast of the Epiphany on 6th January.

The carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, dates back to the 16th century. Even though its precise author is unknown, it is generally assumed to have been written by the English Jesuits as a catechetical device during the persecution of Catholics in the dreadful Penal Times. Convents and monasteries were closed and looted; priests were exiled and forbidden under pain of death from returning or performing the sacraments. But many brave priests did return, and in hidden secret meeting places the Sacraments were celebrated, and the people were taught the One True Faith. This carol, appearing as a merry tune with amusing lyrics, was in reality a song of instruction with hidden meanings to transmit the basic teachings of the Faith during this desperate terrifying time.

On the 1st day of Christmas my true love sent to me…

A Partridge in a Pear Tree  

The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge that feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings, much in memory of the expression of Christ’s sadness over the fate of Jerusalem: “Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered you under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but you would not have it so . . . .” (Luke 13:34) The pear tree is the symbol of the Cross.

On the 2nd day of Christmas my true love sent to me

Two Turtle Doves 

These represent the two natures in Jesus: human and divine. They can also represent the two Testaments, Old and New.

On the 3rd day of Christmas my true love sent to me…

Three French Hens

The “three French hens” are the Three Persons in One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; or the three Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope and Charity (1 Corinthians 13:13)

On the 4th day of Christmas my true love sent to me…

Four Calling Birds

These are the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, that bring the Good News of our salvation through Jesus Christ, the Word of God.

On the 5th day of Christmas my true love sent to me…

Five Gold Rings

The “five golden rings” are the first five books of the Old Testament called the Torah or the Pentateuch (and generally considered the most sacred and important of all the Old Testament):  1) Genesis, 2) Exodus, 3) Leviticus, 4) Numbers, and 5) Deuteronomy, which gives the history of humanity’s sinful failure and God’s response of grace in the creation of a people to be a light to the world.

On the 6th day of Christmas my true love sent to me…

Six Geese A-laying

These are the six days of Creation (Genesis 1);  or the six Precepts of the Church: 1. To respectfully and devoutly assist at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on all Sundays and Holidays of Obligation, 2. To fast and abstain on the days appointed, 3. To go to Confession at least once a year during the Easter Season, 4. To receive the Sacrament of the the Most Holy Eucharist at least once a year during the Easter Season, 5. To contribute financially to the support of the Catholic Church, 6. To never violate the laws concerning the Sacrament of Matrimony.

On the 7th day of Christmas my true love sent to me…

Seven Swans A-swimming

These are the seven Sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion, Confession, Marriage, Holy Orders, and the Anointing of the Sick.

On the 8th day of Christmas my true love sent to me…

Eight Maids A-milking

The eight Beatitudes: 1) Blessed are the poor in spirit, 2) those who mourn, 3) the meek, 4) those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, 5) the merciful, 6) the pure in heart, 7) the peacemakers, 8) those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. (Matthew 5:3-10)

On the 9th day of Christmas my true love sent to me...

Nine Ladies Dancing

The nine choirs of angels;  or the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22)

On the 10th day of Christmas my true love sent to me……

Ten Lords A-Leaping

The Ten Commandments: 1) I am the Lord your God; you shall not have strange gods before me; 2) You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; 3) Remember to keep holy the Lord’s day; 4) Honour your father and mother; 5) You shall not kill; 6) You shall not commit adultery; 7) You shall not steal; 8) You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour; 9) You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife; 10) You shall not covet your neighbour’s goods. (Exodus 20:1-17)

On the 11th day of Christmas my true love sent to me……

Eleven Pipers Piping

The eleven Faithful Apostles: 1) Simon Peter, 2) Andrew, 3) James the Greater, 4) John, 5) Philip, 6) Bartholomew, 7) Matthew, 8 ) Thomas, 9) James the Less, 10) Simon the Zealot, 11) Jude (sometimes known as “Thaddaeus”). (Luke 6:14-16).  The list does not include the twelfth disciple, Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus.

On the 12th day of Christmas my true love sent to me……

Twelve Drummers Drumming

These are the twelve basic beliefs of the Catholic Church as outlined in the Apostles Creed: 1) I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; 2) And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord; 3) Who was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, 4) Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. 5) He descended into hell; on the third day He rose again from the dead; 6) He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty; 7) From thence He shall come again to judge the living and the dead. 8 ) I believe in the Holy Spirit, 9) the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints, 10) the forgiveness of sins, 11) the resurrection of the body, 12) and life everlasting.


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17 Responses to “The Twelve Days of Christmas” carol – the hidden meaning.

  1. Mimi says:

    Why does this make me think of that old Country ‘n’ Western classic about the deck of cards . . . ? 😉


  2. Dan Brown would be proud of this fantastic and silly tale…..


  3. rebrites says:

    Bah, humbug!


  4. teresa says:

    I like this kind of folk’s customs, without them, Catholicism would have no life. People who pride in their intellectuality might consider these customs to be silly, but they are essential for an intact Catholic life. Living in a totally traditional Catholic region, I know very well how these seemingly childish customs are there to maintain the Catholic life.

    Recently I talked with a university teacher of philosophy, Dr. phil. who taught at the University Fribourg, and he agreed that that is just the simple folk and the folk’s customs what are exactly important for an intact Catholic life. Come and live in Austria, in South Germany or in the Catholic part of Switzerland, you will understand.


  5. Ann says:

    Beautiful continuum of life


  6. Jonathan says:

    I find joy in the meaning given to this song, and I sing it joyfully – especially around Christmas. However, these meanings were given to this carol in recent years (about 20 years ago) and were not originally part of the song. I would encourage you to check:

    With that said, it does not mean we cannot sing the song and enjoy the meanings given to this song, but it is good to know more of the facts rather than trust the rumor that is passed along.


  7. GC says:

    So you did, kathleen, and I remember it now. Time to seek out new roots and herbs in the Chinese medicine shop for a failing memory, I think.

    There’s a good article linked in a comment on that earlier post of yours. It seems quite convincing and says the “Twelve Days of Christmas” is indeed just a silly song for Christmas to encourage “public mirth”. No hidden meanings in the song, kathleen, and thus we are rescued from being grinches.


    The writer of that article also appears to have views on the meanings of nursery rhymes. Might be worth checking out.


  8. kathleen says:

    Snopes seems to go to extraordinary lengths to deny any Catholic identity with this carol. Couldn’t be he has a hidden agenda, could it?

    To begin with he is forgetting that whilst the veil between the practices of Anglicanism nowadays and Catholicism may seem less evident, and the external differences less marked, after the break from Rome, Anglicanism took a very large swing towards non-sacramental Protestantism. This commenced in the reign of Edward VI, and was then consolidated under Elizabeth I, after the short ‘brush’ with Catholicism under Mary Tudor. This is clear in the 39 Articles of their creed.
    He mentions the numbers of the points where Catholics and Anglicans do agree – and indeed most other Christian churches – but conveniently overlooks the ones which Anglicans do not teach to their children… (or at least, not in those days).

    “The claim appears to date only to the 1990s” he says. That’s rubbish! I was taught the “hidden meaning” of this carol by the nuns at my convent school when I was a small child in the 60’s. My father told me he was taught it too. I believe it’s a long tradition amongst Catholics going back centuries.

    He also seems to be saying that as this was only a “Christmas song”, it couldn’t have been used during the rest of the year to teach Catholic children, so it wasn’t used at all. Strange reasoning there! Who says there were not other tools used to pass on the treasure of the Catholic Faith?

    In all fairness, he does admit to the origins of the song being “unknown”, so therefore there is really no greater evidence to support his theory that it was composed as a Twelfth Night “memory-and-forfeits” game, than the one given above, (and also made in GC’s link to the Catholic Culture blog.)

    The last paragraph of his article is worth repeating though, when he says: “Perhaps those who consider this tale to be “beautiful” and “inspirational” (despite its obviously dubious truthfulness) should consider its underlying message: That one group of Jesus’ followers had to hide their beliefs in order to avoid being tortured and killed by another group of Jesus’ followers….”
    Yes, he is quite right, that perhaps this is not a good thing to “emphasise” at this time of year, on the feast of all Christians.


  9. Roger says:

    Thank you Kathleen and I believe because silly songs were NOT sung at the sacred Christmas time in the 16th century! Be they Puritan or Protestant. It is to sophisticated to be a peasants roundal.
    In 20th Century The Lord of The Rings was written by Tolkien and with deliberate Catholic themes. Tolkien acknowledged this by the way.
    What I see continuously is a cynical materialist and pusedo rational mind that derides Faith. Look yesterdays Science came from material rational minds! Todays problems are yesterdays science. This weeks Economist reports on the failure of Economists in the current crisis. It also by way of note writes of a Hedge Fund sponsoring academic research in economics.
    New Scientist points out that economics at route is self centred, the profiteer is self centred.
    We need to learn again how to pray and mediate so as to deepen Our faith and begin to see Our Lords view of Creation. It is a sign of a lukewarm Faith that is concerned about the numbers of believers or relevance of Faith.
    How important to teach the meaning of the twelve days of Christmas as unravelled by Kathleen


  10. kathleen says:

    Thank you Roger, but I was only repeating what earlier great Catholics have passed down to us.
    Anyway, it’s good to see you here again.


  11. piliersdelaterre says:

    …now for The Holly and The Ivy, please!


  12. Regarding the snopes article, the author pointed out the fact there was no mention of Catholics claiming their “allegiance with the Pope” as if this is part of our Creed. It betrays a very Protestant or atheistic understanding of the role of the Pope. Also mentions the failure to allude to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but we all know merely mentioning 7 sacraments is a clear difference that would be identified with Catholicism.


  13. Mary Lou Boisselier says:

    Enjoyed every bit of it. Shared this Song with family members who left our Catholic Faith. Gave a wrapped gift for twelve days before Christmas so it was pleasant and very inspiring. Each day it gave my mom something to look foward to opening a small gift and gave me a chance to spread the word of my faith as a Catholic. It made her feel very loved. I felt very happy to give my love. I know my Lord Jesus Christ was with me and the Holy Spirit to inspire me.


  14. kathleen says:

    Do watch good old Bones’ absolutely HILARIOUSLY funny take on “The Twelve Days of Christmas” Carol, style pape Francois, after nearly five troublesome years of this current Papacy.

    (Our BB won’t like it though😔.)


  15. DR CHUANG Wei Ping says:

    After reading the articles, I cannot help feeling that every single word contains a hidden meaning. We just have not discovered them yet. We are just scratching the surface of the history of the carefully crafted lyrics. There is a strong alliterative element to help memory, like Turtledove and Testaments, Swans – Sacraments/Spirit, Lords a leaping – I am the Lord your God, and so on. What is it with the Rings? although Golden happens to contain all the starting alphabets of Genesis, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Exodus, Numbers in the OT. Of the 8 beatitudes, 3 start with M, and 4 with P. Perhaps 16thC English was different, so Maids Milking could then be a mnemonic for the Beatitudes. 11 Pipers,4 calling birds, drumming in the Apostles’ Creed look pretty obvious. It would be interesting to know the thoughts of the composer when he, probably she, used Geese Laying for God laying down creation, and other words which look randomly chosen, but I am pretty sure the composer thought through the lyrics very carefully.


  16. kathleen says:

    A very interesting and insightful comment, Dr. Chuang Wei Ping… Many thanks.


  17. Twayne says:

    This is inaccurate at least on the 12th day.


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