The History of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’

The origin of the song The Twelve Days of Christmas.  While some have tried to debunk this as an “urban myth” out of personal agendas, others have tried to deal with this account of the song’s origin in the name of historical accuracy (see Snopes on The 12 Days of Christmas).  There is little “hard” evidence available either way.  Some church historians affirm this account as basically accurate, while others point out apparent historical and logical discrepancies.

The reality is that the “evidence” for both perspectives is mostly in logical deduction and probabilities.  Lack of positive evidence does not automatically provide negative evidence.  On the other hand, logical deduction and probability do not provide proof either. One internet site devoted to debunking hoaxes and legends says that, “there is no substantive evidence to demonstrate that the song ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ was created or used as a secret means of preserving tenets of the Catholic faith, or that this claim is anything but a fanciful modern day speculation. . ..”  Yet, there is no “substantive evidence” that will disprove it either.

The view of the song as a secret catechism is most likely legendary or anecdotal. Without corroboration and in the absence of “substantive evidence,” we probably should not take overly rigid positions from either perspective. It is all too easy to turn the song into a crusade for personal opinions. That would do more to violate the spirit of Christmas than the song is worth.  So, for the sake of historical accuracy, we need to acknowledge the likelihood that the song had secular origins.

However, on another level, this should not prevent us from using the song in celebration of Christmas. Many of the symbols of Christianity were not originally religious, including even the present date of Christmas, but were appropriated from contemporary culture by the Christian Faith as vehicles of worship and proclamation. Perhaps, when all is said and done, historical accuracy, as important as that might be on one level, is not really the point.  Perhaps more important is that Christians can celebrate their rich heritage, and God’s grace, through one more avenue during the Advent and Christmas seasons.  Now, when they hear what they once thought was only a secular “nonsense song,”  they will be reminded in one more way of the grace of God working in transforming ways in their lives and in our world.  After all, is that not the meaning of Christmas anyway?

The other symbols mean the following:

2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the “Pentateuch”, which gives the history of man’s fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed


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)

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

Two Turtle Doves
The Old and New Testaments, which together bear witness to God’s self-revelation in history and the creation of a people to tell the Story of God to the world.

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

Three French Hens
The Three Theological Virtues:  1) Faith, 2) Hope, and 3) Love (1 Corinthians 13:13)

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


Four Calling Birds
The Four Gospels: 1) Matthew, 2) Mark, 3) Luke, and 4) John, which proclaim the Good News of God’s reconciliation of the world to Himself in Jesus Christ.

[* This is the 1909 American version.  Earlier English versions have “colley birds” or blackbirds.  There are other versions as well.]

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

Five Gold Rings
The first Five Books of the Old Testament, known as the Torah or the Pentateuch:  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
The six days of creation that confesses God as Creator and Sustainer of the world (Genesis 1).

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

Seven Swans A-swimming
The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: 1) prophecy, 2) ministry, 3) teaching, 4) exhortation, 5) giving, 6) leading, and 7) compassion (Romans 12:6-8; cf. 1 Corinthians 12:8-11)

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 Fruit of the Holy Spirit: 1) love, 2) joy, 3) peace, 4) patience, 5) kindness,
6) generosity, 7) faithfulness, 8) gentleness, and 9) 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) You shall have no other gods before me; 2) Do not make an idol; 3) Do not take God’s name in vain; 4) Remember the Sabbath Day; 5) Honor your father and mother; 6) Do not murder; 7) Do not commit adultery; 8) Do not steal; 9) Do not bear false witness; 10) Do not covet. (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, 4) John, 5) Philip, 6) Bartholomew, 7) Matthew, 8) Thomas, 9) James bar Alphaeus, 10) Simon the Zealot, 11) Judas bar James. (Luke 6:14-16). The list does not include the twelfth disciple, Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus to the religious leaders and the Romans.

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

Twelve Drummers Drumming
The Twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles’ Creed: 1) I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. 2) I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. 3) He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. 4) He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell [the grave]. 5) On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. 6) He will come again to judge the living and the dead. 7) I believe in the Holy Spirit, 8) the holy catholic Church, 9) the communion of saints, 10) the forgiveness of sins, 11) the resurrection of the body, 12) and life everlasting.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

On the first day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
A Partridge in a Pear Tree

On the second day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
2 Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

On the third day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
3 French Hens
2 Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

On the fourth day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
4 Calling Birds
3 French Hens
2 Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

On the fifth day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
5 Golden Rings
4 Calling Birds
3 French Hens
2 Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

On the sixth day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
6 Geese a Laying
5 Golden Rings
4 Calling Birds
3 French Hens
2 Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

On the seventh day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
7 Swans a Swimming
6 Geese a Laying
5 Golden Rings
4 Calling Birds
3 French Hens
2 Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

On the eighth day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
8 Maids a Milking
7 Swans a Swimming
6 Geese a Laying
5 Golden Rings
4 Calling Birds
3 French Hens
2 Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

On the ninth day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
9 Ladies Dancing
8 Maids a Milking
7 Swans a Swimming
6 Geese a Laying
5 Golden Rings
4 Calling Birds
3 French Hens
2 Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

On the tenth day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
10 Lords a Leaping
9 Ladies Dancing
8 Maids a Milking
7 Swans a Swimming
6 Geese a Laying
5 Golden Rings
4 Calling Birds
3 French Hens
2 Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

On the eleventh day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
11 Pipers Piping
10 Lords a Leaping
9 Ladies Dancing
8 Maids a Milking
7 Swans a Swimming
6 Geese a Laying
5 Golden Rings
4 Calling Birds
3 French Hens
2 Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

On the first day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
12 Drummers Drumming
11 Pipers Piping
10 Lords a Leaping
9 Ladies Dancing
8 Maids a Milking
7 Swans a Swimming
6 Geese a Laying
5 Golden Rings
4 Calling Birds
3 French Hens
2 Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

Epiphany, January 6

An Epiphany Devotional

Neat word. “To show upon.” A disclosure.  A manifestation.

“For God so loved the world that He gave . . ..” ” . . .  and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

The Christian Church has long celebrated the 6th of January as the feast of the Wise Men. We have never quite figured out who they were. But, is it really important? Probably not.

They disclosed their finest to the One they believed to be the King of the Jews. Just as God had given his best, they gave what were the most expensive gifts of their day. Gold for prosperity, frankincense for sweetness and atmosphere, and myrrh as a preservative symbolizing his ability to overcome even the worst of times. Their finest to the Finest.

It is a long journey from the first day of Advent to Epiphany. If you have read each day you have laughed, cried, and discovered a new vision of God’s greatest manifestation of His love for you. You too have felt your own emotions churn as the recollections and reminiscences of others have reminded you of days of hope, love, peace and family. You have had things disclosed to you that you had long forgotten. Some of those were blessings. Others may have been things that you wish had remained hidden.

But, each one of them is you. Your life, your dreams, your desires, your longings. Like it or not, you have to deal with each of them and accept yourself because and in spite of them. That is okay. It really is. God does, whether you do or not.

The whole story of the season is meant for you. You are the “whosoever” of John 3:16. God gave Himself for you. A whole year is ahead of you as the celebration of Christmas draws to a close. If you have not done it yet, please, be encouraged to give God the best gift you ever could. Yourself. You are important, so important that Jesus came and gave Himself on your behalf. All He has ever wanted is to give you the chance to be free in Him. To be His. To know Him as a personal God, Friend, Companion.

Won’t you give Him what He wants most for Christmas?

– Joe Hittle
Ottumwa, Iowa, USA

 

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