Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Catholic Activity: Origin of the Twelve Days of Christmas



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In 1982, Fr. Stockert put this online in 1982. Since then there has been controversy on whether or not the story of the origin is correct. Much of the story makes sense, because there are other "Catechism songs" that have similar hidden meanings, such as "Green Grow the Rushes". Could some people be disputing the origin because they refuse to acknowledge the persecution of Catholic in England during 1558 to 1829? Perhaps the objection is just to the fact that there is no paper trail to this explanation. Regardless if the origin is accurate or not, as Catholics we can use this song as a catechism, to apply religious meanings to a secular song.


You're all familiar with the Christmas song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" I think. To most it's a delightful nonsense rhyme set to music. But it had a quite serious purpose when it was written.

It is a good deal more than just a repetitious melody with pretty phrases and a list of strange gifts.

Catholics in England during the period 1558 to 1829, when Parliament finally emancipated Catholics in England, were prohibited from ANY practice of their faith by law — private OR public. It was a crime to BE a Catholic.

"The Twelve Days of Christmas" was written in England as one of the "catechism songs" to help young Catholics learn the tenets of their faith - a memory aid, when to be caught with anything in *writing* indicating adherence to the Catholic faith could not only get you imprisoned, it could get you hanged, or shortened by a head — or hanged, drawn and quartered, a rather peculiar and ghastly punishment I'm not aware was ever practiced anywhere else. Hanging, drawing and quartering involved hanging a person by the neck until they had almost, but not quite, suffocated to death; then the party was taken down from the gallows, and disembowelled while still alive; and while the entrails were still lying on the street, where the executioners stomped all over them, the victim was tied to four large farm horses, and literally torn into five parts - one to each limb and the remaining torso.

The songs gifts are hidden meanings to the teachings of the faith. The "true love" mentioned in the song doesn't refer to an earthly suitor, it refers to God Himself. The "me" who receives the presents refers to every baptized person. The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge which 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 thee under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but thou wouldst not have it so..."

The other symbols mean the following:

Two (2) Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments

Three (3) French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues

Four (4) Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists

Five (5) Golden Rings = The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.

Six (6) Geese A-laying = the six days of creation

Seven (7) Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments

Eight (8) Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes

Nine (9) Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit

Ten (10) Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments

Eleven (11) Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles

Twelve (12) Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

by Fr. Hal Stockert, 12/17/95


"Over the years since this was written, in about 1982, and first put out for the online world to enjoy, I have been deluged every year with hundreds of "you can't prove this!" kinds of letters.  Obviously, I cannot prove *anything* to anyone who doesn't care to believe.

However, for those who ARE interested in the provenance of the data, and to save myself the burden of having my inbox filled with notes asking for evidence to beat debunkers over the head with, I will simply add this and leave it to the reader to accept it or reject it as he or she may choose.

I found this information while I was researching for an entirely unrelated project which required me to go to the Latin texts of the sources pertinent to my research.  Among those primary documents there were letters from Irish priests, mostly Jesuits, writing back to the motherhouse at Douai-Rheims, in France, mentioning this purely as an aside, and not at all as part of the main content of the letters.  In those days, even though there are those who will deny this, too, it was a sufficient crime between 1538 and nearly 1700 just to BE a Jesuit in England to find oneself hanged, drawn and quartered if he fell into the hands of the authorities.  Edmund Campion was not the sole Jesuit in England during the period.  And there are places in England itself which, if you visit them, will attest to the antiquity and veracity of the article.

Whether you believe it or not is irrelevant to me.  You can enjoy it or not, as you choose.  I hadn't written it as a doctoral thesis, simply as some delicious tidbit I thought the world would be delighted to share over a holiday season.  It seems, however, that there is more than one grinch, and I am not at all interested in feeding the others who remain past the one in the Christmas cartoons.  Believe if you will.  Dissent if you choose.  Let the rest enjoy the story.

Fr. Hal 12/15/00

NOTE: For the other side see what Snopes has to say.

Activity Source: Origin of the "Twelve Days of Christmas": An Underground Catechism by Fr. Hal Stockert, 1995