On the Twelve Days of Christmas
I’m sure you have all heard the Christmas carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” with its haunting melody. The carol dates back to the 16th century and its precise author is unknown. It has generally been assumed to consist of twelve nonsense verses built around a pretty melody. But in a fascinating article in Our Sunday Visitor (12/20/92), Fr. Gilhooley, a chaplain at St. Mary’s College, informs us that the carol was written by the English Jesuits of the 16th century as a catechetical device and it is far from filled with nonsensical verses.
The carol is akin to the apocalyptic literature of Scripture that used obscure symbols to hide its true meaning from the enemy in time of persecution. To understand the background that gave rise to the carol, let us look briefly at the history of Catholicism in 16th century England.
When Henry VIII was rebuffed by Rome in his bid to divorce Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn, he declared himself head of the Church in England replacing the Pope and demanded that all swear an oath of allegiance to him as such. St. Thomas More, the Chancellor of the Realm, the equivalent of the Prime Minister today, refused the oath supporting the elimination of the Pope’s authority and Henry had him publicly beheaded. Catholic convents and monasteries were closed and looted. The situation was worse under his son, Edward VI, and better during the short reign of Catherine’s daughter, Mary Tudor. She was succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth I, an ardent Protestant, the daughter of Anne Boleyn. The practice of the Catholic faith was banned. Priests were exiled and forbidden under pain of death from returning or performing the sacraments. It was a desperate, dreadful time.
But many priests risked their lives to come back and minister to the flock and many lay Catholics likewise risked their lives and fortunes to hear Mass and have their children baptized. Wealthy families built hiding places, called priests’ holes, in their homes to hide priests in case their homes were raided by the secret police.
The story is told of one priest who was almost caught in a surprise raid. He had just time to squeeze into his hole before the police broke in on the family. The police had obviously received a tip because they went right to the fireplace where the priest’s hole was located. But try as they might, they couldn’t find the entrance. Then in their frustration they ordered a fire to be lit to drive out the priest. When he didn’t emerge, because to do so would subject the host family to prison or death, they ordered more logs on the fire. Eventually all were driven from the room by the intense heat and the police left in disgust. The family rushed to get the priest out of the hole but he was already dead, baked alive. He gave his life under cruel circumstances to save those whom he had come to serve. And he was only one of many.
With this as a background we can see the need for secrecy and deception. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was written to educate the faithful in the doctrines of the faith and yet not be obvious to the persecutors. The numbers are simply a mnemonic to help Catholics remember some basic facts. Recall the words of the song. “On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: twelve lords a leaping, eleven pipers piping, ten ladies dancing, nine drummers drumming, eight maids a milking, seven swans a swimming, six geese a laying, five golden rings, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.” ...
So here we have the meaning of the lyrics to this carol, used to teach the Faith and to spread it among the Catholic recusants of England. I have condensed Father's version to make these easier to remember, and supplemented them from other sources. As is common, there are several different interpretations of the numbers.
My true love = God
Me = the individual Catholic
twelve lords a leaping = the twelve basic beliefs of the Catholic Church as outlined in the Apostles Creed.
eleven pipers piping = the eleven Apostles who remained faithful after the treachery of Judas
ten ladies dancing = the Ten Commandments.
nine drummers drumming = the nine choirs of angels
eight maids a milking = the Eight Beatitudes
seven swans a swimming = the Seven Sacraments, or the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit
six geese a laying = the Six Commandments of the Church or the six days of creation
five golden rings = the first five books of the Old Testament
four calling birds = the Four Gospels
three French hens = the Three Persons in God, the three gifts of the Wise Men, the three Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity
two turtle doves = the two natures in Jesus: human and divine; or the two Testaments, Old and New
partridge = the piece de resistance, Jesus himself
N.B. The mother partridge feigns injury to lead predators away from her helpless nestlings.
"Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered you under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but you would not have it so . . . ." (Luke 13:34)
pear tree = the Cross.