Many years ago I discovered a book that claimed to have the meaning of each of the 12 days in the Christmas carol, The 12 Days of Christmas. I no longer have the book so I cannot refer to it directly. The meaning of the 12 days as listed in the book, however, have always stuck with me. I have attempted to determine whether or not these are historically accurate, but I have not been able to get that verification. With this in mind, do not take this as any sort of truth, but rather as a way of applying a deeper meaning to a Christmas carol that, on the surface, celebrates greed.
From what I have seen, this Christmas carol is of French origin. The first written English version of this carol dates back to 1780. The twelve days refer to the 12 days between Christmas Day (December 25) and Epiphany (Jan. 6), the day which traditionally is held as the day when the three Magi visited Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus. It is also held that this song was birthed during a time of persecution in France in which Catholics were persecuted by Protestants. This is a historical inaccuracy as it was the French Protestants (Huguenots) that were persecuted by French Catholics. This carol was said to have been a "secret code" to teach children a catechism of belief. Again, this is not historically verifiable. That being said, I see no reason why Christians can take something that is not overtly Christian and give it Christian meaning. We see this with churches holding "Harvest Night" on Halloween.
So enough history. What can be said about the gifts given during the 12 days of Christmas? The partridge in a pear tree is said to mean Jesus on the cross. This is a clear Roman Catholic reference to the crucifix as Protestants do not have crucifixes in their churches but empty crosses. There are reasons for the Roman Catholic crucifix, but that is a subject for another post.
The two turtle doves is said to refer to the Old and New Testaments.
The three French hens is said to refer to either the Trinity; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or the three Christian virtues faith, hope and love (1 Corinthians 13:13).
The four calling birds (actually colly birds or blackbirds) is said to refer to the four Gospels.
The five golden rings is said to refer to the first five books of the Bible (The Pentateuch, or the Torah).
The six geese a-laying is said to refer to the six days of creation.
The seven swans a-swimming is said to refer to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 11:2-3).
The eight maids a-milking is said to refer to the eight Beatitudes as given by Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3-10).
The nine ladies dancing is said to refer to the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).
The ten lords a-leaping is said to refer to the Ten Commandments.
The eleven pipers piping is said to refer to the eleven faithful apostles.
Lastly, the twelve drummers drumming is said to refer to the twelve points of the Apostles' Creed.
I did discover that there is a song entitled "A New Dial" which nearly mirrors the above.
What are they that are but one?As a humorous aside, the United States bank, PNC Financial Services, publishes its "Christmas Price Index" which tracks the cost of the items listed in the carol The Twelve Days of Christmas. While the Christmas Price Index for 2010 has not been released, the 2009 Index listed the cost of the twelve items listed at $21,465.56.
We have one God alone
In heaven above sits on His throne.
What are they which are but two?
Two testaments, the old and new,
We do acknowledge to be true.
What are they which are but three?
Three persons in the Trinity
Which make one God in unity.
What are they which are but four
Four sweet Evangelists there are,
Christ's birth, life, death which do declare.
What are they which are but five?
Five senses, like five kings, maintain
In every man a several reign.
What are they which are but six?
Six days to labor is not wrong,
For God himself did work so long.
What are they which are but seven?
Seven liberal arts hath God sent down
With divine skill man's soul to crown.
What are they which are but eight?
Eight Beatitudes are there given
Use them right and go to heaven.
What are they which are but nine?
Nine Muses, like the heaven's nine spheres,
With sacred tunes entice our ears.
What are they which are but ten?
Ten statutes God to Moses gave
Which, kept or broke, do spill or save.
What are they which are but eleven?
Eleven thousand virgins did partake
And suffered death for Jesus' sake.
What are they which are but twelve?
Twelve are attending on God's son;
Twelve make our creed. The Dial's done.
Again, regardless of whether there is a historic meaning to this carol is not important. What is important is that this song can be used to teach our children some important Christian ideas during a season which is more and more losing those Christian roots in our increasingly secular society. If you use this carol to teach these truths to your children or have in the past, I would love to hear from you.