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 the 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. Do you have any special 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 love this, and I fully intend to keep the Christmas spirit alive.
In my own way.
Christmas is not over yet,
the purple lights are still a-gleaming,
and you, my friend, should surely bet
that in the night-land I am scheming
for more odd gifts to bestow
upon my dear long-suffering wife
so that she may marvel and know,
that I am not quite through with life.
Aha! I have now just the thing,
that might well decorate the parlour
of a lass in whom takes wing
the spirit of Douglas Macarthur,
a new and handmade corncob pipe
for a lady of a diff’rent stripe.
Wendy — Your post is a Christmas treasure. Thank you. And a post-script of my own– I have long believed in the joy and respite that the 12 days of Christmas provide.
Aw, I love this, Wendy – thank you! I’m so grateful for the tradition of the twelve days of Christmas and that age-old reason to hold onto and savor this season just a bit longer. And I’d heard some of the possible biblical meanings of the song before but never all of them (and have often wondered) – thank you! And a Merry Third Day of Christmas to you. 😊🎄❤️
Great timing, Wendy! I read this in my Advent devotional booklet yesterday and thought of you. 🙂 Happy Birthday!
Kristen Joy Wilks
Fascinating! Well, our plans are always the same for the days after Christmas. Starting on December 26th we run a camp for perspective summer staff (both counsel staff and work crew) where they can be the campers and learn and grow in their faith over the winter months. It is a highlight of our year!