The Origin of the 12 Days of Christmas

Among the huge catalogue of Christmas songs out there “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is an absolute classic. Most of us are quite familiar with it.

You know, five golden rings, the partridge in the pear tree, and all that jazz.

But have you ever wondered about the meaning of the song?

Growing up I used to think to myself, What kind of person would give six geese-a-layin’ and three French hens for Christmas?


It didn’t make much sense to me, but still I loved the song, anyway. I just took it as a fun little rhyme set to music.

Just recently, without it even crossing my mind, I stumbled upon the actual meaning of the song. Not only is it beautiful and has me loving the song more than ever, but, for me, this little history lesson gives that constant and annoying secularization of Christmas a good needed kick in the rear-end.

The song was written with a serious purpose and deep meaning. It’s definitely not just a silly song about random gifts.

Catholics in England during 1558 to 1829, when Parliament finally emancipated Catholics in England, were prohibited from any practice of their faith by law—private or public.

Simply put, it was a crime to be 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, and as a memory aid of them. To be caught with anything in writing indicating adherence to the Catholic faith would not only get you locked up in prison, it would get you hanged or shortened by a head, or hanged, drawn and quartered, an unorthodox and awful punishment.

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 disemboweled 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. All for just being Catholic.

The song’s 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 partridge-in-a-pear-treeHimself.

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…” [Matthew 23:37]

The other symbols mean the following:
2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the “Pentateuch”, which gives the history of man’s fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed