The Twelve Days of Christmas
by George Grant
Every day, from December 25 to January 6, has traditionally been a part of the Yuletide celebration. Dedicated to mercy and compassion--in light of the incarnation of Heaven’s own mercy and compassion--each of those twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany was to be noted by selfless giving and tender charity. In many cultures, gift giving is not concentrated on a single day, but rather, as in the famous folk song, spread out through the entire season.
In that delightful old folk song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, each of the gifts represent some aspect of the blessing of Christ’s appearing. They portray the abundant life, the riches of the Christian inheritance, and the ultimate promise of heaven. They also depict the essential covenantal nature of life lived in Christian community and accountability--but perhaps not as specifically as you may have been led to believe. Though theories vary on the origin of the song (it first appears sometime during the advent of Protestantism in Tudor England) it is likely an urban legend that it was intended to be a secret catechism song during those difficult times of persecution.
That rather fanciful interpretation of the song has attached very specific and very dubious meanings to the symbols: the partridge in a pear tree, for instance, is taken to be Christ, Himself. It is supposed that in the song, He is symbolically presented as a mother partridge feigning injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings--an expression of Christ's sadness over the fate of Jerusalem: "Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered thee under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but thou wouldst not have it so." The two turtledoves are taken to represent the Old and New Testaments. The three French Hens supposedly symbolize faith, hope, and love. The four calling birds are said to portray either the four Gospels or the four evangelists. The five golden rings are supposed to be the first five books of the Old Testament the "Pentateuch." The six geese a-laying are said to be the six days of creation while the seven swans a-swimming are taken to be the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The eight maids a-milking are supposed to be the eight beatitudes while the nine ladies dancing supposedly represent the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit. The ten lords a-leaping are naturally taken to mean the Ten Commandments. The eleven pipers piping are supposed to be the eleven faithful apostles and the twelve drummers drumming are either the tribes of Israel, the elders of Revelation, or the points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed.
Most of these well-intended interpretations are likely just wishful thinking. For one thing, all of the first seven gifts actually refer to birds of varying types. The fourth day's gift, for instance, is four "colly birds," not four "calling birds" (the word "colly" literally means "black as coal," and thus "colly birds" would be blackbirds). The "five golden rings" on the fifth day refers not to five pieces of jewelry, but to five ring-necked birds (such as pheasants).
But, even though symbolic maximalism likely goes too far, it is equally excessive to assume that the song is "strictly secular," as one debunking web site dubbed it. Indeed, secularism in sixteenth century England was about as credible then as an Elvis sighting is today. The answer to overly-anxious allegorical apocryphalism is not the equal and opposite error of overly-anxious rational reductionism. Symbols don't have to mean everything in order to mean something--nor do they have to mean nothing.
Very likely, this delightful folk song was just intended to generally and joyously portray throughout the Yuletide season the abundant Christian life, the riches of the Church's covenantal inheritance, and the Gospel's ultimate promise of heaven. Sing, therefore, with new gusto and zeal. For, "every good and perfect gift comes from above." Even partridges, pear trees, and leaping lords!