Is ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ a Song About Catechism?

A priest’s 1995 blog post helped circulate a claim about the origin of the song “The 12 Days of Christmas,” casting it as a secret act of religious resistance, before later walking back his claims.

The Rev. Harold Richard Stockert (also known as “Father Hal”) said in a post for the Catholic Information Network that while people think lightly of the song, it “had a quite serious purpose.”

“It is a good deal more than just a repetitious melody with pretty phrases and a list of strange gifts,” Stockert claimed. “Catholics in England during the period 1558 to 1829, when Parliament finally emancipated Catholics in England, were prohibited from ANY practice of their faith by law – private OR public. It was a crime to BE a Catholic.”

As such, he claimed, each of the items named in the songs referred to different teachings:

The “true love” mentioned in the song doesn’t refer to an earthly suitor, it refers to God Himself. The “me” who receives the presents refers to every baptized person. The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Stockert never provided any proof for his allegations, and we could not find any evidence that the song was linked to any Catholic teachings. Historian William Studwell further debunked Stockert’s claims in a 2008 interview with the Religion News Service, saying:

This was not originally a Catholic song, no matter what you hear on the Internet. … Neutral reference books say this is nonsense. If there was such a catechism device, a secret code, it was derived from the original secular song. It’s a derivative, not the source.

Mark Lawson-Jones and Dominic Walker also debunked Stockert’s argument in their 2011 book Why Was The Partridge: The History of Christmas Carols:

Although the exact origins of the song are unknown, it is highly probable that it began as a memory and forfeit game for twelfth night celebrations, which would have been said and not sung. The players gathered in a circle and the leader would recite a verse and each would repeat it, the leader would add another verse, and speak faster, and so on until a mistake was made by one of the players, who would then drop out of the game.” The last player standing was the winner.

But even by then, Stockert had added a note to his original post:

It has come to our attention that this tale is made up of both fact and fiction. Hopefully it will be accepted in the spirit it was written. As an encouragement to people to keep their faith alive, when it is easy, and when any outward expressions of their faith could mean their life. Today there are still people living under similar conditions, may this tale give them courage, and determination to use any creative means at their disposal to keep their faith alive.

Stockert died in May 2014. He was 78.

Update 11/29/2021, 4:19pm PST: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here. -ag