Birds, Dancing, and Jewelry…All in the Name of Faith

Christmas carols are really not on my list of favorite music. Not because I don’t appreciate The Gift that was given at Christmastime, but because I’m still working through all the negative feelings that are tied to the holidays. I’d rather flip the station than listen, and that’s exactly what I do. However, there are a few Christmas songs that I’ll listen to: Shake Up Christmas, O Holy Night, and The Twelve Days of Christmas if it’s sung by the Muppets. Yes, I’m serious.

But The Twelve Days of Christmas always makes me wonder what the heck it’s about. What are these gifts and what do they have to do with the birth of Jesus? We have dancing ladies and leaping lords, milking, jewelry, and a bird who won’t come out of a fruit tree, to name a few elements from the song. Year after year I hear people wonder what it’s about and even ask why they aren’t receiving a gift every day for twelve days.

But did you know you are?

From 1558 until 1829, Roman Catholics in England were not permitted to openly practice their faith. Someone during that era wrote this carol as a catechism for young Catholics. It has two levels of meaning: the surface meaning – giving gifts to a true love – and the hidden meaning known only to members of the church. Each element in the song is really a code for a religious icon or reality that the children could remember. The following is a translation:

  • A partridge in a pear tree was Jesus Christ
  • Two turtle doves were the Old and New Testament
  • Three French hens stood for faith, hope, and love
  • Four calling birds represented the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
  • Five golden rings recalled the Law – the first five books of the Old Testament
  • Six geese a-laying marked the six days of creation
  • Seven swans a-swimming signified the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit – prophecy, serving, teaching, exhortation, contribution, leadership, and mercy
  • Eight maids a-milking represent the eight beatitudes
  • Nine ladies dancing were the fruit of the spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control
  • Ten lords a -leaping signify the ten commandments
  • Eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful disciples
  • Twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in the Apostle’s Creed

So there we have it. A lesson in gifts on two different levels. It turns out that not only do we receive these gifts on the twelve days of Christmas, but every day throughout the year.

This gives new meaning to the song, but I still like it best when it’s sung by the Muppets.

Many thanks to my friend, Sheila, who never fails to bring light where there is darkness…

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One thought on “Birds, Dancing, and Jewelry…All in the Name of Faith

  1. Noel says:

    Wow. I never knew the meaning behind that song before. That’s cool! Thanks for sharing.

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