The Twelve Days of Christmas are not the twelve days before Christmas as many people believe. They are the days between Christmas and January 6th, which is called Epiphany. This is the time in which the three wise men traveled to see the baby Jesus, arriving on Epiphany, January 6th.

The Christmas song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” seems to be a silly repetitious rhyming song telling of an unusual list of gifts a suitor sends to his true love during the Christmas season. The song actually was created for a serious religious purpose.

During the years from 1558-1829 it was against the law for Catholics in England to practice their faith in public or in private. There were severe penalties for those caught practicing the Catholic religion. Thus the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was created as a memory aid for children so that parents could teach them important elements of their faith by hiding their true meanings within the silly symbols used in the song. The children could sing it openly without the authorities knowing of the religious meaning behind the song, and the parents could pass along their religious beliefs to the children at a time when that would have been forbidden.

The “true love” of the song is not a suitor but is actually God Himself. The “me” who receives the presents represents every baptized person. “A partridge in a pear tree” is the symbol for Jesus Christ. This symbol is used because a mother partridge will appear to be injured when a predator is near to lure him away from her helpless chicks, representing the sacrifice she is willing to make.

The other verses of the song contain these other elements of the faith:

2 turtle doves: the Old and New Testaments
3 French hens: faith, hope, and charity
4 calling birds: the Four Gospels
5 golden rings: the first five books of the Old Testament
6 geese a-laying: the six days of Creation
7 swans a-swimming: seven gifts of the Holy Spirit
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 of belief in the Apostles’ Creed

This fascinating bit of history sheds a new light on one of the most popular songs of the Christmas season.