Myth Blaster: Hidden Meaning in the Song – The Twelve Days of Christmas

Quills, Iowa passed an e-mail received concerning the Twelve Days of Christmas, which is an alleged history of the Christmas Carol. Here is the version she received:
There is one Christmas Carol that has always baffled us. What in the world do leaping lords, French hens, swimming swans, and especially the partridge who won’t come out of the pear tree have to do with Christmas? From 1558 until 1829, Roman Catholics in England were not permitted to practice their faith openly. Someone during that era wrote this carol as a catechism song for young Catholics. It has two levels of meaning: the surface meaning plus a hidden meaning known only to members of their church. Each element in the carol has a code word for a religious reality, which the children could remember.

1. The partridge in a pear tree was Jesus Christ.
2. Two turtledoves were the Old and New Testaments
3. Three French hens stood for faith, hope and love.
4. The four calling birds were the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke & John.
5. The five golden rings recalled the Torah or Law, the first five books of the Old Testament.
6. The six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation.
7. Seven swans a-swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit: Prophesy, Serving, Teaching, Exhortation, Contribution, Leadership, and Mercy.
8. The eight maids a-milking were the eight beatitudes.
9. Nine ladies dancing were the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self Control.
10. The ten lords a-leaping were the Ten Commandments.
11. The eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful disciples.
12. The twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in The Apostles‘ Creed.

Myth Blaster Verdict:

Myth Blaster: Cartoon from Scotland?FALSE. No evidence found to confirm the claim, although the general historical background is correct. Folklore. The key to suspicion would be the sentence:

From 1558 until 1829, Roman Catholics in England were not allowed to practice their faith openly.
Papal authority in the Vatican was strong during the period mentioned and has no factual basis in history. In fact there were Christians sects that separated from the Holy Roman Church that were the ones being persecuted, and thus why (part of reason) people immigrated to the Americas. In addition the birth of Christ was not December 25th but has become traditionally the day of his birth.
The DaVinci Code is not the only venue of seeking hidden meanings or codes, using segments of real history to make the story seemingly possible … according to Snopes:
Two common forms of modern folklore are claims that familiar old bits of rhyme and song, such as the nursery rhyme Ring Around the Rosie encode “hidden” meanings which have been passed along for centuries, and claims that common objects of secular origin – particularly objects associated with Christmas (such as theCandy Cane) – were deliberately created to embody symbols of Christian faith. Here we have an article that combines both these forms and posits that a mirthful Christmas festival song about romantic gift-giving actually originated as a coded catechism used by persecuted Christians. … The history of the development of the Anglican Church and the relationship between Anglicans and Catholics in England over the subsequent centuries is a complex subject which could not be done justice in anything less than a lengthy and detailed discourse. For an overview of the topic, we recommend the entry on “England (Since the Reformation)” in The Catholic Encyclopedia. … There is no substantive evidence to demonstrate that the song The Twelve Days of Christmas was created or used as a secret means of preserving tenets of the Catholic faith, or that this claim is anything but a fanciful modern day speculation, similar to the many apocryphal “hidden meanings” of various nursery rhymes. … If The Twelve Days of Christmas were really a song Catholics used “as memory aids to preserve the tenets of their faith” because “to be caught with anything in writing indicating adherence to the Catholic faith could get you imprisoned,” how was the essence of Catholicism passed from one generation to the next? … There are no obvious relationships between the concepts to be memorized and the symbols used to represent them in The Twelve Days of Christmas. … As one would expect to find in a folkloric explanation (rather than a factual one), there is a great deal of variation in the list of religious tenets supposedly symbolized in the song. … What little has been offered in support of this claim is decidedly unconvincing. This piece is often attributed to Fr. Hal Stockert …What we do know is that the twelve days of Christmas in the song are the twelve days between the birth of Christ (Christmas, December 25) and the coming of the Magi (Epiphany, January 6). … It is possible thatThe Twelve Days of Christmas has been confused with (or is a transformation of) a song called A New Dial (also known as In Those Twelve Days), which dates to at least 1625 and assigns religious meanings to each of the twelve days of Christmas (but not for the purposes of teaching a catechism). … The Twelve Days of Christmas is what most people take it to be: a secular song that celebrates the Christmas season with imagery of gifts and dancing and music.
I found this information while I was researching for an entirely unrelated project which required me to go to the Latin texts of the sources pertinent to my research. Among those primary documents there were letters from Irish priests, mostly Jesuits, writing back to the motherhouse at Douai-Rheims, in France, mentioning this purely as an aside, and not at all part of the main content of the letters.
In the article by Edwin and Jennifer Woodruff Tait at Christian History & Biography:
The season of Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, and for nearly a month Christians await the coming of Christ in a spirit of expectation, singing hymns of longing. Then, on December 25, Christmas Day itself ushers in twelve days of celebration, ending only on January 6 with the feast of Epiphany. … The “real” twelve days of Christmas are important not just as a way of thumbing our noses at secular ideas of the “Christmas season.” … It is easy to dismiss all these customs as pagan survivals (which many of them are), or at best as irrelevant and harmless follies. Indeed, the medieval church frowned on most of these practices, and the Reformers of the 16th century finished the job of suppressing them.
Dennis Bratcher writes of the subject and the e-mail that Snopes addresses:
… many have questioned the historical accuracy of this origin of the song The Twelve Days of Christmas. It seems that some have made an issue out of trying to debunk this as an “urban myth,” some in the name of historical accuracy and some out of personal agendas. There is little hard evidence available either way. … One internet site [Snopesdevoted to debunking hoaxes and legends says that, “there is no substantive evidence to demonstrate that the song The Twelve Days of Christmas was created or used as a secret means of preserving tenets of the Catholic faith, or that this claim is anything but a fanciful modern day speculation …” What is omitted is that there is no “substantive evidence” that will disprove it either. … However, on another level, this uncertainty should not prevent us from using the song in celebration of Christmas.
Thus we find inconsistency and with no real evidence either way, one can only perceive the “hidden meaning” interpretation as to someone’s imaginative view.