Beanery Online Literary Magazine

December 23, 2007


—written by Carolyn C. Holland

Most people assume that the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” is secular music. They are surprised to learn it was written for religions reasons.

There was a period in England, circa 1558-1829, when it was a crime to be a Catholic, and the law banned them from any private or public practice of their faith. The “12 Days of Christmas” was written in response to this law, to teach the tenets of the church. Each gift, given by the true love (God), has a hidden theological teaching for every baptized person (the “me” in the song) who receives it.

The partridge symbolizes Christ. A mother partridge feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless babies, in the same way Christ expressed his attempt to protect Jerusalem: “Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered thee under my wings, as a hen does her chicks.” The pear tree symbolizes the cross, on which Christ was crucified.

Each of the “gifts” represents some aspect of the Christian faith that was important for children to learn.

Two turtle doves…also has two meanings. First, it stood for the two Biblical testaments, the Old and the New, which together bear witness to God’s self-revelation in history and the creation of a people to tell the story of God to the world. The verse also remind us of the two turtle doves offered at Jesus’ dedication in the temple when he was twelve (Lev. 12:8; Luke 2:24). All the temple sacrifices are symbolic of the one sacrifice Christ made by giving his life as a just payment for the sins of all (Heb. 10_1-10)

Three French hens…are symbolic of three teachings. French hens were very expensive during the 16th century, and are thus symbolic of the three costly gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh given by the wise men (Matt. 2:10-11). They also depicted the value of the three Christ virtues, faith, hope and charity (sacrificial love). (1 Cor. 13:13) Other forms of the song use the French Hens to symbolize the three persons of the trinity.

Four calling birds (originally colly birds—blackbirds)…stand for the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which proclaim the Good News of God’s reconciliation of the world to Himself in Jesus Christ. (John 20:30-31)

Five golden rings…signify what is known variously as the “Torah,” the “law of Moses,” or the “Pentateuch.” These first books of the Bible give the history of humanity’s sinful failure and God’s response of grace in the creation of a people to be the light to the world. (Luke 24:25-27)

Six geese a-laying…Eggs, the almost universal symbol of new life, stand for the six days of creation that confess God as creator and sustainer of the world. ((Gen 1:31-2:2)

The seven swans a swimming…represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading and compassion (Romans 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:8-11)

Eight maids a-milking…Maids who milked the cows were the least of the servants in a home. Their job symbolized Christ’s faithfulness even to us who don’t deserve his love. (Rom. 5:1-The eight maids stand for the eight beautitudes, or blessings, listed in Matthew 5:3-10: the poor in spirit; those mourning; the meek; those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; the merciful; the peacemakers; those persecuted for righteousness’s sake

Nine ladies dancing…remind us of the nine fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Gal. 5::22)

Ten Lords a-leaping…Lords established the law in their own jurisdictions. The Lords stand for the Ten Commandments which are holy and good, by which we should live, and by which we are justly condemned because of our sin. (Ex. 20:3-17; Gal 3:10-28)

Eleven pipers piping…The pipers remind us of the eleven original apostles who did not forsake the faith as Judas did in betraying Christ; apostles who preached the good news of the gospel to the whole world. (Acts 1:13; John 17:12; Matt 28:19 and Rom. 10:18-21)

Twelve drummers drumming…set the pace, reminding us of what we believe by symbolizing the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s creed, one of the earliest “confessions” of faith that summarize the basic teachings of Biblical Christian faith. Orthodox confessions are not meant to add to or replace scripture, but to summarize its teachings. They can be recited at will to remind us of the basics of the Christian faith.

The song’s origins could extend far back in history as 1625. Some person’s have associated it (or confused it) with a song known as both “A New Dial” or “In Those Twelve Days,” a musical piece that assigns a religious meaning to each of the twelve days of Christmas. It is recited in a question-and-answer format.


What are they that are but one?
We have one God alone
In heaven above sits on His throne.

What are they which are by two?
Two testaments, the old and new,
We do acknowledge to be true.

What are they which are but three?
Three persons in the Trinity,
Which make one God in unity.

What are they which are but four
Four sweet Evangelists there are,
Christ’s birth, life, death which do

What are they which are but five?
Five senses, like five kings, maintain
In every man a several reign.

What are they which are but six?
Six days to labor is not wrong,
For God himself did work so long.

What are they which are but seven?
Seven liberal arts hath God sent down
With divine skill man’s soul to crown.

What are they which are but eight?
Eight Beatitudes are there given
Use them right and go to heaven.

What are they which are but nine?
Nine Muses, like the heaven’s nine spheres,
With sacred tunes entice our ears.

What are they which are but ten?
Ten statutes God to Moses gave declare.
Which, kept or broke, do spill or save.

What are they which are but eleven?
Eleven thousand virgins did partake
And suffered death for Jesus’ sake.

What are they which are but twelve?
Twelve are attending on God’s son;
Twelve make our creed. The Dial’s done.








SANTAS, MRS. SANTAS, ELVES & REINDEER WANTED: Please apply—Application #1









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