Deconstructing the twelve days of Christmas

Courtesy of Priscilla Valdez '15

Courtesy of Priscilla Valdez ’15

Courtesy of Priscilla Valdez '15
Courtesy of Priscilla Valdez ’15

Partridge in a pear tree, $199. Five golden rings, $750. Seven swans-a-swimming, $7,000. The history of “The Twelve Days of Christmas:” priceless.
According to the annual PNC Christmas Price Index, which tallies the cost of the items featured in this famous carol, purchasing the literal 12 days’ worth of Christmas would cost over $27,000.
While a banking corporation can place price tags on the gifts listed in the lyrics, the song, despite its vague origins, is arguably invaluable in meaning.
Many speculate that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is riddled with religious symbols. In 1979, Canadian hymnologist Hugh D. McKellar published an article entitled “How to Decode the Twelve Days of Christmas,” claiming that the lyrics of the song are actually a mnemonic device.
During the sixteenth century, King Henry VIII made Anglicanism the national denomination in England and appointed himself the Head of the Church, thereby banning Catholicism. Allegedly, the “Twelve Days” were intended to aid young English Catholics struggling to learn their faith at a time when its practice was prohibited.
According to the decoding, “my true love” refers not to some romantic suitor on earth, but to God Himself. The “partridge,” a bird known to lead predators away from its nest by feigning injury, sacrificing itself for its young, represents Jesus Christ, who sacrificed himself on the cross, or the “pear tree.” The “two turtle doves” represent the Old and New Testaments, while the “four calling birds” stand for the Four Gospels. The “five golden rings” signify the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, which is generally considered the most sacred part of Old Testament scripture.
The “six geese a laying” are the six days of creation, the “eight maids a milking” are the Eight Beatitudes, and the “ten lords-a-leaping” are the Ten Commandments. The “eleven pipers piping” represent the eleven Apostles who remained faithful after Judas’ betrayal. Finally, the “twelve lords-a-leaping” denote the twelve points of belief outlined in the Apostles’ Creed.
McKellar’s theory was popularized in particular by a Catholic priest, Fr. Hal Stockert, in an article that he wrote in 1982 which was posted on cin.org in 1995, spreading the concept to all religious corners of the Internet and making it subject to variation.
No matter how seemingly mind-boggling, the folkloric explanation suffers some inconsistencies.
The “three French hens” have been claimed on different accounts to symbolize the Trinity, the three theological virtues, or the Magi.  The “seven swans a swimming” could be the seven sacraments or the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, while the nine ladies dancing have been said to correspond to either the nine choirs of angels or, to fit the countdown, a modified version of the Twelve Fruits of the Holy Spirit.
McKellar provided no substantive evidence for his claims, and later admitted that the lyrical associations that he posited derived from his own interpretation. Catholic Information Network (cin.org) added a footnote to Fr. Stockhert’s original post, stating that “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.”
A major flaw in the theory is the illogicality and impracticality of this so-called catechism.  The fact that the “Twelve Days” is a Christmas carol limits the learning device application to a short period of the year. Moreover, the differences between the Anglican and Catholic churches were mainly ones of emphasis and ceremony, rather than scripture. Although Catholics and Anglicans used different Bible translations, almost all of the tenets supposedly embedded in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” were common to both denominations.
There would be no real reason for a Catholic at the time to have to hide his knowledge of any of the concepts “encoded” in the song. They were basic articles of faith present in all forms of Christianity. None would separate a Catholic from a Protestant nor pose any threat that required concealment beneath a festive melody and a bunch of birds.
The only lyrical meaning that can be confirmed is that the 12 days central to the song refer to the 12 days after Christmas, between the birth of Christ (December 25) and the coming of the Magi (Epiphany, January 6). Although the precise origins of the song remain unknown, it may have began as a Twelfth Night (January 5) “memory-and-forfeits” game.
In this game, the leader would recite a verse and each of the players would repeat the same verse. The leader would then add another verse, players would repeat both verses, and so on until one of the players made a mistake. The losing player would have have to give up a candy or even a kiss as a penalty.
Mirth Without Mischief, a children’ s book published in 1780, contains the earliest known printed version of the song, presented in the fashion of this memory game. Though this version is the best known English version, textual analysis indicates that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” most likely originated in France. Three French versions of the song are known, and specific items mentioned in the lyrics of the general song suggest French roots. For example, the partridge was not introduced to England until the late 1770s, from none other than nearby France.
Whether English or French, whether born out of a persecuted community or an eighteenth-century game, the meaning of the mysterious “Twelve Days of Christmas” lies in the ears of the listener. Fraught with symbolism or simply catchy, nonsensical lyrics, the cumulative Christmas tune is a gift (or 12) to anyone seeking some holiday spirit.
– Jane Gerstner, Editor-in-Chief
Sources:
http://www.cin.org/twelvday.html
http://www.catholic.net/index.php?option=dedestaca&id=3465
http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/activities/view.cfm?id=540
http://www.snopes.com/holidays/christmas/music/12days.asp