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Decoding ‘The twelve days of Christmas’

The twelve days of ChristmasBarney McGuckian examines a theory that the popular Christmas song ‘The twelve days of Christmas’ might have been a 16th century coded message invented by Jesuits to communicate the tenets of the Catholic faith.


Nowadays everybody loves Christmas. It does not lead to many divisions among us. This is something to be thankful for. It was not always that way.

The Scottish Reformers in the 16th century under the leadership of John Knox were among the first Christian groups to break with the celebration of Christmas. Part of their religious position was that the Mass was a superstitious practice. In this situation celebrating Christmas would have been incongruous as the word itself literally means the Mass of Christ. They didn’t want to be spoilsports, so they found another day for festivities. Hogmanay and New Year’s Day became the focus of attention with the slogan: “Ring out the old, ring in the new; ring out the false, ring in the true”. In Scotland the New Year is a big event, but Christmas is not far behind. It is hard to know whether this is religiously or commercially driven. Whatever the reason, it is good that it is no longer a source of division among people.

In England in the same century the practice of Catholicism, especially attendance at Mass, was punishable by death. An unusual relic of this is the traditional song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. On first hearing, it intrigues with it delightful nonsense and repetition. It is currently attracting a lot of attention around the world on the internet with different theories about it. One acceptation is that it was a coded message with multiple levels of meaning, invented by Jesuits at the time to communicate with recusants, the name given to people who would not accept the new religion. In those days people were very alert to symbolism. Through the apparently innocent words of the song information about such things as the times and locations of Masses could be passed on, as well as reminding people about the main obligations of their faith.

The 12 days of Christmas are those from 25th December to 6th January. In some countries there was a tradition of giving gifts on all twelve days. “My true love” is not an earthly lover but God himself and the “Partridge in a Pear Tree” is the Blessed Eucharist, made present in the Mass. This image is reminiscent of Jesus who described himself as a mother hen gathering her chicks about her and is repeated in every verse to the end. Coming first it is regarded as God’s greatest gift to us. The gifts are either birds or people, with the exception of 5 Golden Rings. The birds are 2 turtle doves, 3 French hens, 4 calling birds, 6 geese a’laying, and 7 swans a’swimming, and the people are 8 maids a’milking, 9 ladies dancing, 10 Lords a’leaping, 11 Pipers piping, and 12 Drummers drumming.

2 Turtle Doves =the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity
4 Calling Birds = 4 Evangelists with their Gospels
5 Golden Rings =the Pentateuch, or first five books of the Bible giving the history of man’s fall from grace
6 Geese a’laying= six days of creation
7 Swans a’swimming=seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids a’milking=8 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.