People often think of The Twelve Days of Christmas as the days before Christmas. Yet Christmas is a season of the Christian Year that lasts from December 25 until January 6 -the Day of Epiphany - when the church celebrates the revelation of Christ as the light of the world and recalls the journey of the Magi.
From 1558 until 1829 Catholics in England were not allowed to practice their faith openly.
During this era someone wrote 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' as a kind of secret catechism that could be sung in public without risk of persecution.
The song has two levels of interpretation: "the surface meaning plus a hidden meaning known only to members of the church."
Each element in the carol is a code word for a religious reality.
- The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ.
- The two turtle doves are the Old and New Testaments.
- Three French hens stand for faith, hope and love.
- The four calling birds are the four Gospels.
- The five gold rings recall the torah (Law) the first
five books of the Old Testament.
- The six geese a-laying stand for the six days of
- Seven swans a-swimming represent the sevenfold gifts
of the Spirit.
- The eight maids a-milking are the eight beatitudes
- Nine ladies dancing are the nine fruits of the spirit
- The ten lords a-leaping are the Ten Commandments.
- Eleven pipers piping stand for the eleven faithful
- Twelve drummers drumming symbolize the 12 points of
belief in the Apostles Creed.
Catholics also wore rings with 10 bumps on them so they could do their rosary and not be caught with the beads in public.
(Thanks to the blog Clerical Whispers for this intriguing piece and Peter Chou for this beautiful graphic)