The Catholic Defender: The 12 Days of Christmas

Posted by John Benko - December 20th, 2013

As we move closer to Christmas, this year is very important to me as I reflect the past few years.

Three out of the last four Christmas seasons I was deployed in Iraq. It’s tough being deployed away from home for a year or more, but it becomes very difficult especially during the major holidays.

The Catholic Church instituted the 12 Days of Christmas in 567 through the Council of Tours.

Ever since then nations have developed their traditions and being deployed we miss the family traditions.

We do well to try and keep alive our traditions among us in a foreign land. I would use the song, “The 12 Days of Christmas” to inspire interest in the Season. For most Americans, Christmas is over after Christmas day.

We have lost the understanding of the season of Christmas for the most part. I found this out simply through the song, “The 12 Days of Christmas”.

In fact, most thought that the 12 days of Christmas began before Christmas, that Christmas day ended the season.

The actual 12th day is January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany (the manifestation) with the wise men finding the Christ Child after about an 18 month journey following a star.

On December 23, 2006 from Iraq, I wrote on Defenders of the Catholic Faith:

Today, I was able to sing Christmas carols with Philippine women who work in our laundry department. It was kind of cool. These people are here to make money to send home. It is to such as these that Father began to go to for Holy Communion. These people have a strong faith and love the Church. Christmas must be a thing of the heart. That’s where it plants itself to do good. God be with you all and Merry Christmas. I will be going to Midnight Mass here, I hope many of you can go!!!

I was trying to get in the Christmas spirit and inspire others to do the same. On Christmas day, 25 December, I was reminding DCF of the 12 days of Christmas.

Each day I would ask the Catholic Board (DCF) and Soldiers I served with what the song said for each day as the days passed by. Friends would ask me about the next day and I would make them wait!

What makes this song special to me is the idea that there could be hidden messages in the song for Catholics.

The Church was suffering persecution in England and it is believed William Shakespeare wrote the song in code. The following is a version of what people believed about the song:

The ‘partridge in a pear tree’
means there is only one God and is also symbolic of Jesus (see Luke 13:34). I have also heard that the first verse was depicting baby Jesus in the manger.

The ‘two turtle doves’
are the Old and New Testaments. Though according to Zondervan’s Twelve Days of Christmas the story behind a favorite Christmas song this is the 2 turtle doves sacrificed that Joseph and Mary brought when they presented Jesus at the Temple.

The ‘three French hens’
are the three Persons of the holy Trinity or the three virtues: faith, hope, and love, though according to Ace Collins’ book “Stories of the Best Loved Christmas Songs”, they represent the expensive gifts of the Wise Men: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The ‘four calling birds’
are the Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; or their Gospels. Which makes sense because they are “calling” out the story.

‘Five gold rings’
are the first five books of the Bible, or the Pentateuch.

‘Six geese a-laying’
refer to the six days of the Creation.

‘Seven swans a-swimming’
are the seven sacraments and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.

‘Eight maids a-milking’
are the eight Beatitudes.

‘Nine ladies dancing’
are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit.

‘Ten lords a-leaping’
are the Ten Commandments.

‘Eleven pipers piping’
are the eleven faithful Apostles.

‘Twelve drummers drumming’
are the twelve doctrines in the Apostles’ Creed.

This interpretation is usually taught with a story, that British Catholics, suffering persecution in the 16th century, wrote the song with these hidden meanings. The song would have served as a pedagogical tool.

This particular version was taken from Wikipedia.org but there are several very close to it. Some dispute the whole idea, but as this story goes. I used the popular historical belief that the song was indeed coded for the faithful Catholics suffering persecution.


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