Key to the Twelve Days of Christmas

The “Twelve Days of Christmas” refer to the eight days of the Christmas Octave from December 25 to New Years Day, and the four additional days up to and including the eve of January 6, the traditional date of the Epiphany.  In the USA and many other countries, Epiphany is now celebrated on the first Sunday after New Years, so the exact number 12 does not necessarily apply.  But the point is, don’t throw out the tree on the 26th–the birth of the Savior can’t be celebrated adequately in one day.  Let the celebration continue through at least through the Feast of the Epiphany–if not through the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
 
According to the Handbook of Catholic Sacramentals by Ann Ball, the famous song about the 12 Days of Christmas was written in England as a catechism song for young Catholics in the days when it was illegal to practice or teach the Catholic Faith.  It contains hidden meanings intended to help children remember lessons of faith. Instead of referring to an earthly suitor, the “true love” mentioned in the song really refers to God.  The “me” who receives the presents is symbolic of every baptized person. 
 
There appears to be no conclusive historical evidence to prove this origin of the song,  Nevertheless, the traditional association between the gifts mentioned in the song and various spiritual gifts is a fun way to turn a seemingly secular Christmas carol into a valuable catechetical tool.  So let’s have fun with it!
 
Partridge in a pear tree: Jesus Christ, symbolized as a mother partridge that feigns injury to decoy predators from helpless nestlings. (Also Partridge in a pear tree = Christ on the cross.  Call to mind that Christ is the “New Adam” and according to Christian folklore the new “tree of knowledge of good and evil” {the cross} is no longer an apple tree.)
 
Two turtle doves                  Old & New Testaments
 
Three French Hens                 Faith, hope, charity – the 3 Theological Virtues  (or the 3 Evangelical Counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience
 
Four Calling birds                The Four Gospels (Or the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) (or The four Cardinal Virtues – prudence, justice, fortitude {or courage}, and temperance {or moderation}) 
 
Five Golden Rings                 The Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy)
 
Six geese a laying                Six days of creation
 
Seven Swans a swimming     7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit  (wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude (or courage), knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord)
 
Eight maids a-milking             8 Beatitudes
 
Nine Ladies Dancing               Nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit (Love, Joy, Peace, Longsuffering, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness. Self-control  Cf. Galatians 5)
 
Ten Lords a-leaping               10 Commandments
 
Eleven pipers piping     The 11 faithful disciples (Peter, Andrew {his brother}, James {son of Zebedee}, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James {son of Alphaeus}, Thaddeus and Simon {the Zealot})
 
12 drummers drumming          12 articles of the Apostles Creed 
 

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