The “Twelve Days of Christmas” are December 25 through January 6: the days between Christmas day and “Three King’s Day”, the traditional day of Epiphany. On the ancient Church calendar these are the dates of the celebration of the feast of Christmas.
The story of the meaning behind the Christmas carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas, is much more intriguing. The story of the carol tells us that from 1558 until 1829, Roman Catholics in England were not permitted to practice their faith openly. It seems that a lay-leader during that era wrote this carol as a catechism song for young Catholics. Within it are two levels of meaning: the comical surface meaning, and a deeper hidden meaning that was understood only by English Catholics.
To begin with, instead of referring to an earthly suitor, the “true love” mentioned in the song really refers to God. The Carol recognizes God as the giver of all good gifts. Each additional element in the carol stands as code for a lesson of the Christian faith:
The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus on the cross.
Two turtle doves are the Old and New Testaments.
Three French hens stand for faith, hope, and love.
Four calling birds are the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke & John.
Five golden rings recall the Torah or Law: the first five books of the Old Testament.
Six geese a-laying stand for the six days of creation.
Seven swans a-swimming represent the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit: Prophesy, Serving, Teaching, Exhortation, Contribution, Leadership, and Mercy.
Eight maids a-milking are the eight beatitudes.
Nine ladies dancing are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, & Self Control.
Ten lords a-leaping are the ten commandments.
Eleven pipers piping stand for the eleven faithful disciples.
Twelve drummers drumming symbolizes the twelve points in the Apostles’ Creed.
Since the time it was first used as a secret catechism mnemonic device, this carol has been very popular – so popular that it is still sung widely today. So now you know the secret advent code: the meaning behind The Twelve Days of Christmas!