The song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is actually Christian Doctrine in CodeFiction!


Summary of eRumor:

This email says that the popular Christmas song “The 12 Days of Christmas” was actually written as a memory device for Christians to remember and recite doctrine.  It says that beginning in the 1500’s, Catholics in  England were not allowed to practice their faith openly, so “The Twelve Days of Christmas” became a secret catechism.  Several suggestions are listed as to what doctrines the verses actually represented.


The Truth: has not found any Catholic or non-Catholic historical or scholarly reference that supports this allegation.  None of the hundreds of emails or citations of this story on the net that we’ve seen includes any credible source.  Most have no source at all, but those that do most often cite an article published on the Catholic Information Network in 1995.  It was authored by Fr. Hal Stockert of Fishnetsite and appears to be the spark of the eRumor.

On the other hand, there are several sources that list the song as being of probable French origin. The most notable is the prestigious New Oxford Book of Carols which not only cites the French roots of the song, but says it is based on a game that children would play on the Twelfth Night, the eve of Epiphany.  In the game, each child would have to try to remember and recite the objects that were said by a  previous child.  If successful, the child would add another object to the list for the next contestant to recite.  If not, the child dropped out.  The game would continue until there was a winner.

There are also other problems with the catechism theory.   The assumption behind it is that the song allowed Catholics to secretly embrace their beliefs behind the backs of non-Catholic Christian leaders during a time when being a practicing Catholic was against the law, for example under Anglican rule.  None of the doctrines said to be represented in the Twelve Days of Christmas, however, was different from the beliefs of Anglicans or even Presbyterians.   There is also the question that if the song was that important for teaching or remembering doctrine, why was it associated only with Christmas?  One final note is that the first printed version of the song is said to be in the children’s book “Mirth Without Mischief” published in 1780 and that describes the song in similar terms as the Oxford Book of Carols.

A real example of the eRumor as it has appeared on the Internet:

Most folks, I believe, are familiar with the Christmas song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”.
If you listen to the words carefully, it seems like nonsence set to rhyme and music.
However, it was written with a serious purpose.
It is more than just a list of twelve silly gifts. Catholics in England during
the period 1558 to 1829 were prohibited by law to practice their faith either
in public or private. It was illegal to be Catholic. [Note: Parliament
finally emancipated Catholics in England in 1829.]
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” was written in England as one
of the “catechism songs” to help young Catholics learn the
basics of their faith. In short, it was a memory aid.
Since the song sounded like rhyming nonsense, young catholics could
sing the song without fear of imprisonment. The authorities would not know
that it was a religious song. Actually, the catecism to which it referred was
rather ecumenical so could probably be claimed to be protestant if cornered.
The song’s gifts had hidden meanings to the teachings of the Catholic faith.
The “true love” mentioned in the song doesn’t refer to an
earthly suitor, but it refers to God Himself. The “me” who receives
the presents refers to every baptized person. i.e. the church. The partridge in a
pear tree is Christ Jesus, the Son of God.
In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge in memory of the 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…”
Here is a complete list of the 12 symbols with their meanings*:
1 Partridge in a pear tree = The One true God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ
2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the “Pentateuch” which contain the law condemning us of our sins.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments of the Catholic faith
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed