Get Inspired: The Meaning

Behind the 12 Days of Christmas

People in the United States are fascinated by the song “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Every year it’s played over and over again on the radio. It’s googled countless times. And it’s often listed as one of the top Christmas songs. You're probably well familiar with the song, but do you know the Catholic roots?

What are the 12 Days of Christmas?

While secular culture begins Christmas after Thanksgiving (and sometimes even earlier!), for Catholics the Christmas season doesn't begin until Christmas Eve. The time of preparation before Christmas is called Advent. Catholics celebrate the Christmas season from Jesus' birth, December 25, until the day before the Epiphany (January 6). The Epiphany is the celebration of when the three wise men visited Joseph, Mary, and Jesus in Bethlehem. Since the Church is still celebrating it's a great opportunity to leave your Christmas decorations up a little longer!

What is the Meaning of the Song "The Twelve Days of Christmas"?

The religious wars in sixteenth century England made it dangerous to be a Catholic. Many people practiced their faith in secret. As the legend goes, Catholic families courageously developed unique ways to secretly pass the faith onto their children, like “The 12 Days of Christmas.” The well-known song was used to teach children about the Catholic Church. Although the lyrics may sound like nonsense, the song actually contains hidden references:

The First Day of Christmas: A Partridge in a Pear Tree

A partridge in a pear tree symbolizes Jesus Christ, with the partridge representing Christ's willingness to sacrifice himself and the pear tree symbolizing the cross.

The Second Day of Christmas: Two Turtle Doves

Two turtle doves represents the Old and New Testaments, highlighting the harmony and connection between the two.

The Third Day of Christmas: Three French Hens

Three French hens signifies the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love (or charity).

The Fourth Day of Christmas: Four Calling Birds

Four calling birds symbolizes the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which spread the good news of Christ's life and teachings.

The Fifth Day of Christmas: Five Golden Rings

Five golden rings represents the first five books of the Old Testament, known as the Pentateuch or the Torah, emphasizing God's covenant with His people.

The Sixth Day of Christmas: Six Geese A-Laying

Six geese a-laying symbolizes the six days of creation, emphasizing God's power as the creator of the world.

The Seventh Day of Christmas: Seven Swans A-Swimming

Seven swans a-swimming represents the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.

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The Eighth Day of Christmas: Eight Maids A-Milking

Eight maids a-milking symbolizes the eight Beatitudes preached by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, highlighting the virtues and blessings of a righteous life.

The Eight Beatitudes:

  1. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  2. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
  3. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
  4. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
  5. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
  6. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
  7. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.
  8. Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The Ninth Day of Christmas: Nine Ladies Dancing

Nine ladies dancing represents the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

The Tenth Day of Christmas: Ten Lords A-Leaping

Ten lords a-leaping signifies the Ten Commandments, which provide guidance for a moral and righteous life.

The Ten Commandments:

  1. I am the Lord your God: You shall not have strange gods before me.
  2. You shall not take the name of the Lord God in vain.
  3. Remember to keep holy the Lord’s day.
  4. Honor your father and your mother.
  5. You shall not kill.
  6. You shall not commit adultery.
  7. You shall not steal.
  8. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  9. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods.

The Eleventh Day of Christmas: Eleven Pipers Piping

The Eleven Faithful Apostles: Peter, Andrew, James the Elder, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the Younger, Simon, and Jude.

The Twelfth Day of Christmas: Twelve Drummers Drumming

Twelve drummers drumming represents the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles' Creed, which summarizes the core beliefs of Christianity.

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.
  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. Amen.

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