I’ve always loved the old English carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas, partly because I was born during the twelve days of Christmas. (Think: Goose.) I was also married on the Seven Swans Day. Christmas marks the first day and the twelve days end on Twelfth Night or the day before Epiphany. Many have said that the old Christmas song has a deeper meaning— that it’s a mnemonic. I find this fascinating. The counting song is said to help teach the tenets of Christianity. Others have refuted this and suggested that the song was just part of a Christmas game. Or perhaps the idea of a deeper meaning came from the ancient song, The Dial. You decide.
Here is the spiritual meaning often attributed to the song:
December 25th A Partridge in a Pear Tree— The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, whose birthday we celebrate on December 25, the first day of Christmas. In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge that feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings, recalling the expression of Christ’s sadness over the fate of Jerusalem: “Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered you under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but you would not have it so . . ..” (Luke 13:34)
December 26th Two Turtle Doves— The Old and New Testaments, which together bear witness to God’s self-revelation in history and the creation of a people to tell the Story of God to the world.
December 27th Three French Hens— Faith, Hope and Love.
December 28th Four Calling Birds— The Four Gospels: 1) Matthew, 2) Mark, 3) Luke, and 4) John, which proclaim the Good News of God’s reconciliation of the world to Himself in Jesus Christ.
December 29th Five Gold Rings— The first Five Books of the Old Testament, known as the Torah or the Pentateuch: 1) Genesis, 2) Exodus, 3) Leviticus, 4) Numbers, and 5) Deuteronomy, which gives the history of humanity’s sinful failure and God’s response of grace in the creation of a people to be a light to the world.
December 30th Six Geese A-laying — The six days of creation that confesses God as Creator and Sustainer of the world (Genesis 1).
December 31st Seven Swans A-swimming— The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: 1) prophecy, 2) ministry, 3) teaching, 4) exhortation, 5) giving, 6) leading, and 7) compassion (Romans 12:6-8; cf. 1 Corinthians 12:8-11)
January 1st Eight Maids A-milking— The eight Beatitudes: 1) Blessed are the poor in spirit, 2) those who mourn, 3) the meek, 4) those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, 5) the merciful, 6) the pure in heart, 7) the peacemakers, 8) those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. (Matthew 5:3-10)
January 2nd Nine Ladies Dancing— The nine Fruit of the Holy Spirit: 1) love, 2) joy, 3) peace, 4) patience, 5) kindness, 6) generosity, 7) faithfulness, 8) gentleness, and 9) self-control. (Galatians 5:22)
January 3rd Ten Lords A-leaping— The ten commandments: 1) You shall have no other gods before me; 2) Do not make an idol; 3) Do not take God’s name in vain; 4) Remember the Sabbath Day; 5) Honor your father and mother; 6) Do not murder; 7) Do not commit adultery; 8) Do not steal; 9) Do not bear false witness; 10) Do not covet. (Exodus 20:1-17)
January 4th Eleven Pipers Piping— The eleven Faithful Apostles: 1) Simon Peter, 2) Andrew, 3) James, 4) John, 5) Philip, 6) Bartholomew, 7) Matthew, 8) Thomas, 9) James bar Alphaeus, 10) Simon the Zealot, 11) Judas bar James. (Luke 6:14-16). The list does not include the twelfth disciple, Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus to the religious leaders and the Romans.
January 5th Twelve Drummers Drumming— The twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles’ Creed: 1) I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. 2) I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. 3) He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. 4) He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell [the grave]. 5) On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. 6) He will come again to judge the living and the dead. 7) I believe in the Holy Spirit, 8) the holy catholic Church, 9) the communion of saints, 10) the forgiveness of sins, 11) the resurrection of the body, 12) and life everlasting.
So, see. . . Christmas is not over. There’s plenty of time to keep celebrating until Twelfth Night, at least. Do you have any special “Covid careful” plans for celebrating in the days leading up to Twelfth Night or the next day, Epiphany? What will you be doing?
 A mnemonic (RpE: /nəˈmɒnᵻk/, AmE: /nɛˈmɑːnɪk/ the first “m” is silent) device, or memory device is any learning technique that aids information retention in the human memory.
Wendy, I’m a 12th Day baby and married on the 3rd Day. And I don’t take down my decorations until after the 12th Day.
I’ve gotten in the habit of leaving the Christmas tree and the creche up until Epiphany or Old Christmas in Appalachia. That’s a whole other story related, I think, to the stubborn streak often found in these mountains. Regardless, I find it comforting to have the cheer of those soft, tree lights still glowing into the dark days of January. I wish everyone would go back to celebrating Christmas from Dec. 24 until Jan. 6. I think it would be MUCH more meaningful than the current Nov. 1 – Dec. 25 practice.
Growing up, we never took Christmas decorations down until January 7. We celebrated all 12 days. Our church children’s Christmas party was always during the week between Christmas and New Year. Still, I won’t take decorations down until after Jan 6. It’s irrelevant that my birthday is Swans.
Wendy, this is fascinating; thank you so much for the backstory!
Twelve nights of mystery,
twelve days of grace;
God stepped into history,
and the world saw His face.
Twelve nights of wonderment,
twelve days of awe,
for now to us is sent
Divine Living Law.
Twelve days to catch our breath,
for now it begins,
and Babe born to meet His death
will vanquish our sins.
Twelve days of Heaven’s call,
twelve nights that save us all.
Perfect, Andrew! This should become a Christmas classic.
Wendy, I had never heard these deeper meanings. I loved reading them and learning a bit more about you! What a fabulous way to learn basic Christian tenets.
As for how we’ll be celebrating Twelfth Night and Epiphany, sadly our family doesn’t have any fun traditions for these days. How do you celebrate?
Kristen Joy Wilks
I had no idea that these deep truths were attributed to such a frolicsome song! How fun! The only tradition that we have during the twelve days of Christmas is the eating of homemade pie on January 3rd. My dad loved pie and instead of having a sad day of remembrance on the anniversary of his death (can’t believe it’s been 28 years!) we remember him with pie eaten together in joy!
A wonderful explanation of this old English carol. I am such a believer in the 12 days of Christmas — celebrating the joy of the season for 12 days following all the previous hectic days!
We don’t have traditions for these days, but we so love this song. My husband’s aunt started our family singing this years ago, with a different person assigned for each day. The first year, the person assigned “five golden rings” got us so tickled that we ensure he gets that same line every year we gather together. We didn’t get to sing it this year, but I might have to remedy that.