What Are The Twelve Days of Christmas?
Everyone knows that on the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me a partridge in a pear tree—I still have both the tree and the bird, and the latter won't shut up. But when is the first day of Christmas?
You'd think that the twelve days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list on the Internet will tell you—but in Western Christianity, they actually start on Christmas and end on January 5th. According to liturgy, the twelve days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the twelve days start on December 26th and end on January 6th).
As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th century England when Catholism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."
In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:
2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
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 gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy 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
There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are very compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.
Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now. AND A PARTRIDGE IN A PEAR TREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE...
Thanks to reader Charlotte for the big question!