Explaining Christmas Traditions: The 12 Days of Christmas

People are familiar with the song, “The 12 Days of Christmas,” but have you ever wondered  why there are 12 days of Christmas and what is up with the bizarre gifts (do you want a partridge in a pear tree)?

12 Days of Christmastide

While we often think of the Christmas season as the time leading up to Christmas Day, in the traditional church calendar this is known as “Advent.” Christmas actually marks a new season, known as Christmastide, which extends from Christmas to Epiphany (which is January 6). If you quickly do the math there, you will see that there are 12 days between Christmas and Epiphany; this is why there are 12 days. While Christmas marks the birth of Jesus, Epiphany remembers God’s revelation of himself in the flesh to the world, with particular reference to Jesus coming for the Gentiles as well as the Jews as symbolized in the visit of the wise men (or Magi) from the East. The existence of Epiphany is a good reminder of the different details concerning Jesus’s birth that we find in Luke and Matthew, as Luke 2 recounts the shepherds who came to visit Jesus on the night of his birth while Matthew 2 notes a visit from some non-Jewish individuals a couple of years later.

Why is My “True Love” Giving Me These Odd Gifts?

A common explanation for the origin of this song is that it was a catechism (teaching) with symbolic meanings in each of the gifts that was used by Catholics in England when they were not able to practice their faith (1558-1829). The “true love” was God Himself. Each of the gifts is a way of teaching the Christian faith:

  • Partridge in a Pear Tree = Jesus
  • 2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments
  • 3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity (known as the Theological Virtues)
  • 4 Calling Birds = the four gospels
  • 5 Golden Rings = The first five books of the Old Testament, the “Pentateuch”
  • 6 Geese a Laying = the six days of creation
  • 7 Swans a Swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit or the seven sacraments
  • 8 Maids a Milking = the eight beatitudes
  • 9 Ladies Dancing = the nine fruits of the Spirit
  • 10 Lords a Leaping = the Ten Commandments
  • 11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
  • 12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points in the Apostle’s Creed

While this is interesting, there seems to be a number of problems with this theory which many have noted in recent years. One interesting argument against this theory is that none of the proposed symbolic meanings are beliefs or practices that distinguish Protestants and Catholics (besides the number seven if seen as the seven sacraments, but as noted it could be the gifts of the Holy Spirit), as all seem to be beliefs held by both church branches. Therefore, it would be unclear why they had to be secretly embedded in this song. Moreover, I am not sure if anything in the various details really offers a connection between the gift and what  the gift is said to symbolize. For example, do milking maids remind you of the beatitudes, or do french hens resemble faith, hope, and love? I also found that there are different versions of the gifts, so it is not clear if there is a specific connection between the gifts and the teachings. In addition, the fact that I could recall this story but had to look up the various symbols shows that these might not be great mnemonic devices! The teaching seems more in the numbers than the gifts themselves, and one could simply find something to fit each number if one wanted to invest the song with some teaching value. These connections thus might not be the origins of the song, but rather a later use for it (in fact, the theory that this teaches the Christian faith seems to be something that started in the 20th century). Finally, no direct evidence for this view has been found; Father Hal Stokkert, the one who seems to have popularized this view in an article published in 1982, noted he found it in letters of old Irish priests but these letters have since been destroyed in a flood. It seems like he made a proposal that then essentially went “viral” (it came before the internet but the internet helped spread it). However, other internet articles (such as that looks at “urban legends”) have raised important questions about this view.

If this wasn’t a catechism song to teach kids the Christian faith, where did it come from? It is not exactly clear -- it might just have been a children’s song that was sung as part of a game (a song game) during Christmastide and may have been adapted from a French tune. Why these gifts then? Even after doing some research, the reason for the gifts is still unclear.. Sorry I couldn’t be of more help!


The 12 Days of Christmastide

Even if we are unable to determine the exact origins of these strange gifts, we do know the reason for 12 days, and I think this song can point us to something important about Christmas - Christmas Day is not the end of the season but really the beginning of it. Radio stations often begin playing Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving and seem to either stop the day after or on New Year's Eve. Similarly, people often put up their decorations right after Thanksgiving but will put them away at some point between December 26 and New Years. Let us not just think about Christmas in the days leading up to the holiday, but also in the days that follow. There is no obligation to celebrate Epiphany, but perhaps this holiday could serve as a marker for us in some ways to help us continue to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It is not necessary to give anyone a partridge in the a pear tree, but keep passing along the great joy that comes because Jesus has been born!
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