The Twelve Days of Christmas

Today I got the following email with an attachment from a friend of mine who is not Catholic wanting to know the veracity of its claims. Apparently, not knowing many Catholics, she thinks we all are well versed in such things. It stumped me.

“Ok, my Catholic Friend…Someone sent this to me today – Is it true?? I figured you’d know…


The History Behind “The 12 Days Of Christmas”

There is one Christmas Carol that has always baffled us. What in the world do leaping lords, French hens, swimming swans, and especially the partridge who won’t come out of the pear tree have to do with Christmas? From 1558 until 1829, Roman Catholics in England were not permitted to practice their faith openly. Someone during that era wrote this carol as a catechism song for young Catholics. It has two levels of meaning:the surface meaning plus a hidden meaning known only to members of their church. Each element in the carol has a code word for a religious reality, which the children could remember.

1. The partridge in a pear tree was Jesus Christ.

2. Two turtledoves were the Old and New Testaments

3. Three French hens stood for faith, hope and love.

4. The four calling birds were the four gospels of Matthew, Mark,Luke & John.

5. The five golden rings recalled the Torah or Law, the first five books of the Old Testament.

6. The six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation.

7. Seven swans a-swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit: Prophesy, Serving, Teaching, Exhortation, Contribution, Leadership, and Mercy.

8. The eight maids a-milking were the eight beatitudes.

9. Nine ladies dancing were the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self Control.

10. The ten lords a-leaping were the Ten Commandments.

11. The eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful disciples.

12. The twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in The Apostles’ Creed.

So there is your history for today. This knowledge was shared with me and I found it interesting and enlightening and now I know how that lovely but strange song became a Christmas Carol… so pass it on if you wish.

This was all news to me. And seemed like odd news, but I couldn’t put my finger on it!

When in doubt, google it out!

When stories like that cross through my inbox, I have a tendency to investigate. It is easy to do. Clip and paste a distinctive line of text from the email, open a search, and then do a search. In this instance I chose “From 1558 until 1829, Roman Catholics in England were not permitted” By putting it in quotes, you can sometimes find the original text on a website.

Well doing so yielded over two dozen websites that reprinted the story. One in particular caught my attention:

That site quotes Father Hal Stockert although it wrongly calls him “Friar Hal Stockert” In fact, I met Fr. Hal at a priest’s funeral once. He is a Byzantine Catholic parish priest from (at the time) NY state, not a friar, but that is likely a typo. Some of you may know him from his writings that appear in This Rock magazine published by Catholic Answers or his work on the CIN (Catholic Information Network) online. Here is Stockert, as quoted at that site:

“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 part of the main content of the letters. “

Yet at Stockert’s own site:

We find the following in a post-script which presumably could have been written AFTER the Light House Patriot Journal website quotation. Given there are no dates, we cannot be certain!:

P.S. It has come to our attention that this tale is made up of both fact and fiction. Hopefully it will be accepted in the spirit it was written. As an encouragement to people to keep their faith alive, when it is easy, and when any outward expressions of their faith could mean their life. Today there are still people living under similar conditions, may this tale give them courage, and determination to use any creative means at their disposal to keep their faith alive.

Now it is in reference to Stockert’s contribution and the claims of the song that finally lead me to Why I didn’t start there, I don’t know. I usually do when I get emails – especially the odd stories about kids with cancer that want me to send a chain letter. You know the nonsense.

That availed me to the following link:

Well it seems the good people at had already heard all of these rumors and have judged the email to NOT be credible citing lack of evidence some 8 years ago back in 1998. They had contacted Fr. Stockert and he was unable to produce any notes or research, owing to notes on antiquated software & water damage to papers. They conclude – and not unfairly – that evidence that cannot be examined is no evidence at all. Fair enough.

But the main arguments of the Snopes writers seems to be two: 1) a lack of history to positively demonstrate the claims and 2) Given the differences between Anglicanism and Catholicism, the alleged “hidden meanings” seem, at best, to be unnecessary.

What do they mean by the latter argument? Well the “hidden meanings” are NOT differences that separate Anglicans and Catholics. These “hidden meanings” bear no catechetical nature to educate an underground Catholic on tenants distinctive to the Catholic faith. Rather bluntly, any pious Anglican would be familiar with Jesus Christ, Old and New Testaments, eight beatitudes, Ten Commandments, etc. No Catholic would have to hide this information lest he or she be “found out” and no Anglican would have trouble openly singing about these things.

Now if the song were to be “One Pope of Rome, Seven Sacraments, Nineteen Ecumenical Councils”, etc. (For those paying close attention, the Catholic Church had only had 19 by the time of the carol’s writing!) It might be another story!
In the end it seems like a nice pious thought and might serve well as a mnemonic device for Christians of any stripe wishing to think of these things when thinking of their Christian faith, but evidence that the familiar carol is MORE than we think it is – a fun song to sing (especially when we all scream “FIVE GOLDEN RINGS!” – well the evidence just isn’t there to support it.
Of course, in the end, it could be just as well if we take time to consider WHAT are the Twelve Days of Christmas. Wikipedia tells us:

The Twelve Days of Christmas and the associated evenings of those twelve days (Twelve-tide), are the festive days from the evening after Christmas Day (December 25) through Christian Epiphany on (January 6). December 26 (St. Stephen’s Day) is the first day of Christmas, then December 27 is the second day of Christmas, and so on until January 6 which is the 12th day of Christmas. Christmas Day, December 25, is therefore not one of the twelve days of Christmas.

Really, given how very rushed we feel during the days leading up to Christmas with shopping, baking sending cards and parties, we as Christians might take an interest in using these 12 nights AFTER December 25th to meditate in more spiritual ways on the gift of the incarnation given for the salvation of all mankind some 2 millenia ago. So leave that tree up and just relax.

Of course, if you were Greek Catholic or Greek Orthodox, you would leave the tree up until February 2d, The Feast of The Presentation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the Temple. However, if you don’t live in a neighborhood that is a bastion of like-minded Byzantines, the neighbors might just think you are a little weird.

Merry Twelve Days of Christmas to you and yours!

-A Simple Sinner