The Twelve Days of Christmas

Since the original article was published on this site, further research has indicated that its history is not what was first supposed.
(c) Copyright 2001 (Revised) by Gretchen Passantino
See The Original AIA article for an amplification of the "spiritual" meaning of the 12 days.

Christmas is my favorite holiday and making the worship of our Lord and Savior the focus of our Christmas celebration has been a passion of mine for years, as reflected in some of my writing and speaking.[1] I was delighted a few years ago to find a large picture book, The Real 12 Days of Christmas[2], which related that the words to that nonsense song actually reflected a memory game to help children remember elements of essential Christian doctrine. The story goes that when Catholicism was outlawed in England (during the 16th through the early 18th centuries), Catholics were not allowed to teach their children at home or in Catholic schools, but had to submit to Church of England instruction. This "coded" song reflected their persistence in teaching their children outside of Anglican authority. Before I promoted the story, I did some research and verified the story from the Catholic Informaiton Network website, a Vatican directory, and well-known Catholic author Ann Ball.[3] Subsequently I wrote the previous version of this article and talked about the story on many radio programs. Later I was challenged by some who said the story was spurious. Given Answers In Action's reputation as "urban legend busters,"[4] I had to thoroughly investigate the discrepancy. Many of the arguments against its authenticity criticized some poorly presented versions, not the form we had promoted. The core objections, however, that it was not old enough to have been used during that period and that it had not been associated with a memory-device catechism until recently, undercut my entire premise.

So I went looking and backtracking. What I discovered after a year's worth of investigation, was that there is no evidence that this particular song was even old enough to be used as a catechism during Catholic restrictions. There was, however, a similar song that was probably confused with the 12 Days carol that contained an open catechism. I concluded that the 12 Days of Christmas was not a secret catechism, but can be used as a summary of faith, giving a contemporary meaning to the days as we did in our original article. In addition, the story also reminds us of how songs were often used to convey articles or truths of the faith in societies that learned more from the spoken (or sung) word than the written. Below are both songs, with the contemporary doctrinal items included in The 12 Days of Christmas.[5]

The 12 Days of Christmas

(A "forfeit" game played on Twelfth Night, lyrics dating to 18th century, melody from French folk song)

                  On the first day of Christmas                           
                           My true love gave to me
                           A partridge in a pear tree (The partridge is Jesus, the tree is the cross.)
                           Two turtle doves (The two testaments, Old and New.)
                           Three french hens (Three gifts of the wise men., three Christian virtues,
or 3 persons of the Trinity.)
                           Four colly [black] birds (Four gospels)
                           Five golden rings (Five books of Moses)
                           Six geese a-laying (Six days of creation)
                           Seven swans a-swimming (Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit - Rom. 12:6-8)
                           Eight maids a-milking (Eight beatitudes - Matt. 5-7)
                           Nine ladies dancing (Nine fruit of the Spirit - Gal. 5:22-23)
                           Ten Lords a-leaping (Ten commandments)
                           Eleven pipers piping (Eleven apostles who did not fail like Judas)
                           Twelve drummers drumming (Twelve articles of the Apostles' Creed).


In Those Twelve Days

(Also called "A New Dyall.")
(1833 compiled by Sandy in Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern, to a traditional English melody.)
                         
                 In those twelve days let us be glad,
In those twelve days let us be glad,
For God, by his grace, hath all things made.
What is that which is but one? (Repeat)
        
We have but one God alone
In heaven above sits on his throne.
What are they which are but two?
        
Two Testaments, we are told:
The one is New, the other Old.
What are they which are but three?
        
Three persons of the Trinity,
The Father, Son, and Ghost Holy.
What are they which are but four?
        
Four Gospels, written true,
John, Luke, Mark, and Matthew.
What are they which are but five?
        
Five senses we have to tell
God grant us grace to use them well.
What are they which are but six?
        
Six ages of this world shall last;
Five of them are gone and past.
What are they which are but seven?
        
Seven days in the week have we,
Six to work and the seventh holy.
What are they which are but eight?
        
Eight beatitudes are given;
Use them well and go to heaven.
What are they which are but nine?
        
Nine degrees of angels high
Which praise God continually.
What are they which are but ten?
        
Ten commandments God hath given:
Keep them right and go to heaven.
Jesus' sake.What are they which are but eleven?
        
Eleven thousand virgins [martyrs] did partake
And suffer death for Jesus' sake.
What are they which are but twelve?
        
Twelve Apostles Christ did choose
To preach the Gospel to the Jews.



  1. See, for example, "Santa Claus and the Gospel," "Celebrate Christ's Birth," and "Is God Against Christmas" on the Answers In Action web site, www.answers.org.
  2. By Helen Haidle, illustrated by Celeste Henriquez (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishing, 1997).
  3. Ann Ball. A Handbook of Catholic Sacramentals. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday,1991.
  4. See, for example, One of the Latest Urban Myths on the Answers In Action website (at http://www.answers.org/issues/urban.html).
  5. Thanks to the many authors, professors, and scholars who aided me in my research. Most shall remain nameless since they, too, had repeated the tale without proper documentation but were gracious enough to guide me to their sources, which also proved to be inadequate. Ann Ball was particularly helpful in helping trace the story back nearly three decades. The best documentation is in the following resources: Ioan and Peter Opie. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); Percy Dearmer, R. Vaughan Williams, and Martin Shaw, eds. The Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964); and Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott, eds. The New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992). Our original article is still available on the Answers In Action web site, with fuller explanation of the various contemporary symbolism.



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The Lord's Servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will give them a change of heart leading to a knowledge of the truth
II Timothy 2:24-26