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Decoding “The 12 Days of Christmas”

Thanks to Aislinn Cogan for sending us this piece about the Christmas Carol The “12 Days of Christmas”. Aislinn. Like, many, has been singing it since childhood but now finds out the full meaning.


Bernard J McGuckian SJ, former Director of the Pioneer Association, examines a theory that the popular Christmas song ‘The twelve days of Christmas’ might have been a 16th century coded message invented by Jesuits to communicate the tenets of the Catholic faith.


Christmas is a popular feast and does not lead to many divisions among the Churches. This is something to be thankful for. It was not always that way.


The Scottish Reformers in the 16th century under the leadership of John Knox were among the first Christian groups to break with the celebration of Christmas. Part of their religious position was that the Mass was a superstitious practice. In this situation celebrating Christmas would have been incongruous as the word itself literally means the Mass of Christ.


They didn’t want to be spoilsports, so they found another day for festivities. Hogmanay and New Year’s Day became the focus of attention with the slogan: “Ring out the old, ring in the new; ring out the false, ring in the true”. In Scotland the New Year is a big event, but Christmas is not far behind. It is hard to know whether this is religiously or commercially driven. Whatever the reason, it is good that it is no longer a source of division among people.


In England in the same century the practice of Catholicism, especially attendance at Mass, was punishable by death. An unusual relic of this is the traditional song, “ The Twelve Days of Christmas”. On first hearing, it intrigues with its delightful nonsense and repetition. It is currently attracting a lot of attention around the world on the Internet with different theories about it.


One opinion is that it was a coded message with multiple levels of meaning, invented by Jesuits at the time to communicate with recusants, the name given to people who would not accept the new religion. In those days people were very alert to symbolism. Through the apparently innocent words of such songs, information about things as the times and locations of Masses could be passed on, as well as reminding people about the main applications of their faith.


The twelve days of Christmas are those from 25th December to 6th January. In some countries there was a tradition of giving gifts on all 12 days. “My true love” is not an earthly lover but God himself and a “Partridge in a Pear Tree” is the Blessed Eucharist, made present in the Mass. This image is reminiscent of Jesus who described himself as a mother hen gathering her chicks about her and is repeated in every verse to the end. Coming first it is regarded as God’s greatest gift to us.


The gifts are either birds or people, with the exception of Five Golden Rings. The birds are two turtle doves, three French hens, four calling birds, six geese a’laying, and seven swans a’swimming. The people are eight maids a’milking, nine ladies dancing, ten Lords a’leaping, 11 Pipers piping and 12 Drummers drumming.


Two turtle doves are the Old and New Testament. Three French Hens are Faith, Hope and Charity.

Four Calling Birds are four Evangelist with their Gospels .Five Golden Rings are the Pentateuch, or first five books of the Bible giving the history of man’s fall from grace.


Six Geese a’laying are the six days of creation. Sevens Swans a’swimming are seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments. Eight Maids a’milking are eight beatitudes. Nine Ladies Dancing are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit.


10 Lords a’leaping are the 10 Commandments. 11 Pipers Piping are the 11 faithful apostles

12 Drummers Drumming are the 12 points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed.


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