I have a confession to make. I love accapella music. I never was a fan until I was introduced to the group Straight No Chaser several years ago. My wife texted me and asked me to watch a YouTube video of this accapella choir that had gone viral on the internet. The video was of Straight No Chaser’s 12 Days of Christmas. This is not the traditional version that is associated with Christmas time as it is a playful spin of wrong days, mixed in melodies, and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Since I am writing about the sounds of Christmas, however, I thought I would try and uncover the background of the original classic, the 12 Days of Christmas. What I found was a labyrinth of myths, misconceptions, plot twists, and misinterpretations, topped off with a dash of fiction and a sprinkle of truth.
I was taken aback at how many stories circulate and have been associated with the song the 12 Days of Christmas. So much so, that I wasn’t sure where to begin. So, let’s start with a common misconception- the 12 days of Christmas actually STARTS Christmas Eve. Most people believe that the 12 days begins twelve days before Christmas. Traditon dictates that the 12 days begins on Christmas Eve and runs through January 5, the eve before Epiphany. Epiphany is a Christian festival, traditionally celebrated on January 6, to commemorate the Magi’s arrival to see the baby Jesus and present him with their gifts. It is also the revelation of God the Son come to Earth in human form.
The second thing about this classic carol is a lyrical misquote. “On the fourth day of Chirstmas my true love gave to me………..” Admit it, you are currently singing this in your head. What did you come up with? Four calling birds….right? That is the wrong lyric. Believe me, I was just as suprised as you are. I have been singing this wrong my entire life and I am sure you have too. You can imagine my shock when I discovered that the actual lyric is “four colly birds” which is nothing more than a blackbird. Now, I know what you may be thinking- you may be convinced that it is calling birds, I mean that is how the lights in Pigeon Forge present it- it must be true. However, the actual lyric is colly birds. Sorry.
The final and most interesting quirk about this beloved song is a secret, hidden mystery concerning the lyrics of the song. A story surfaced in the mid 1990’s about how this song was actually a catechism for young Catholic boys forbidden to practice their faith in the 16th century. The story goes that this was used as a code song, much like the slaves used to signal escape attempts during the time before the American Civil War. Catholic boys were taught this song as a way to learn the essential truths of their faith. Many people have argued for and against this origin story of how the song came about. Snopes calls it false, while others have claimed its validity. The fact of the matter is there is no hard, substantial evidence to back up or disprove either claim. One must think that the actual truth lies somewhere in between, but regardless if this is actually how it happened, if it was some variation of the story, or if this is just the theological observances connecting our faith’s principle beliefs to this very popular Christmas song, we can embrace this representation of our faith, our beliefs, and our Lord. It is no secret that many of our Christian rituals and symbols were secular or even pagan in nature, including the day that we celebrate Christmas. So, I want to examine this catechism and give you the breakdown of each day:
“On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me…..A partridge in a pear tree.”
The first day has two images we need to understand. First, “my true love” is NOT a romantic interest. It is God the Father. He is the giver of these gifts, the author of our salvation. Secondly, the partridge represents Jesus. A mother partridge will act as a decoy to draw predators away from her nest, giving her life so her children might live.
“On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me…..two turtle doves.”
This is simply the gift of God’s Word first through the history and then through the revelation of the Gospel in the Old and New Testaments
“On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me…..three french hens”
The three virtues found in 1 Corinthians 13: Faith, Hope, Love
“On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me…..four colly birds”
These four colly birds, or blackbirds represent the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
“On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me…..Five gold rings”
The five gold rings represent the first five books of the Bible. These are the books of the law given to and written by Moses. They are called the Pentateuch or the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy
“On the sixth day of Christmas my true love gave to me…..six geese a laying”
The six geese represent the six days of creation where God created the entirety of Earth and all that resides within it, resting on the seventh day.
“On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me…..seven swans a swimming”
Here we get into things that many people don’t know about or understand. These swans represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. These can be found in both Romans 12:6-8 and 1 Corinthians 12:8-11. They are prophesy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion.
“On the eighth day of Christmas my true love gave to me…..eight maids a milking”
One doesn’t need to go very far into Matthew to find the symbolism behind this one. The eight maids represent the eight beatitudes found in the Sermon on the Mount in Chapter 5:3-10. They are Blessed are those poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for the sake of righteousness.
“On the ninth day of Christmas my true love gave to me…..nine ladies dancing”
These are the fruits of the spirit found in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
“On the tenth day of Christmas my true love gave to me…..ten lords a leaping”
If you have followed this far, then you probably can figure this one out pretty quick. It represents the 10 Commandments given to Moses on Mt. Sinai in Exodus 20:1-17. 1) You shall have no other gods before me; 2) Do not make an idol; 3) Do not take God’s name in vain; 4) Remember the Sabbath Day; 5) Honor your father and mother; 6) Do not murder; 7) Do not commit adultery; 8) Do not steal; 9) Do not bear false witness; 10) Do not covet.
“On the eleventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me…..11 pipers piping”
This is the eleven faithful apostles that follow Jesus- all except Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus: Peter, Andrew, James, John, Phillip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James (yes there are two), Simon, and Judas (not Iscariot- yes two of them too).
“On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me……twelve drummers drumming”
This represents the 12 points of the Apostles Creed. The creed can be recited in church services and is often used in Presbyterian and Methodist churches among others. The twelve points represent the beliefs and faith of the apostles that followed Christ. They are: 1) I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. 2) I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. 3) He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. 4) He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell [the grave]. 5) On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. 6) He will come again to judge the living and the dead. 7) I believe in the Holy Spirit, 8) the holy catholic Church, 9) the communion of saints, 10) the forgiveness of sins, 11) the resurrection of the body, 12) and life everlasting.
So, there you have it. The long, but fascinating quirks and story behind the 12 Days of Christmas. Whether you subscribe to the catechism story about the song’s origin or not, there is one thing that you can hang your hat on. The principles used in the description of each day of the song is based on the irrefutable, infallible word of God and that is good enough for me.
In Christ Alone,
Rev. Bro. Coach
–Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher – All Rights Reserved, CRI/Voice, Institute, Copyright © 2013 CRI/Voice, accessed at: http://www.cresourcei.org/cy12days.html