On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me, an historical anomaly.
On the second day of Christmas, my true love to me, two false reports, and an historical anomaly.
On the third day of Christmas, my true love sent to me, three urban legends, two false reports, and an historical anomaly.
There’s a story that regularly makes the rounds in Catholic literature around this time of year. It’s about the song Twelve Days of Christmas — and it’s an utterly charming, and completely false, urban legend. (There’s a version on Catholic Online, for example.)
The Twelve Days of Christmas Song, so the story goes, was originally written as code for Catholics living in England. For almost three-hundred years, Catholics were persecuted in England and practicing the Faith was basically illegal: priests could be executed, not attending Anglican services resulted in fines, Catholics were not allowed to vote and barred from holding any public office.
It wasn’t until the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 that Catholicism could come out of the shadows and freely teach about the Faith. Before then, Catholics had to rely on more subversive and sneaky ways to teach their children and hand on the Catholic Faith to the next generation.
One such way was Catechism songs, where innocuous lyrics concealed deep theological truths. In the case of the Twelve Days of Christmas, each gift is supposed to correspond to a different Catholic truth:
- Partridge in a pear tree = Christ on the cross
- Two turtle doves = Old & New Testaments
- Three French hens = three theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity
- Four colley birds = four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
- Five gold rings = five books of the Law or Pentateuch
- Six geese a-laying = six days of creation
- Seven swans a-swimming = seven gifts of the Holy Spirit
- Eight maids a-milking = eight Beatitudes
- Nine ladies dancing = nine fruits of the Holy Spirit
- Ten lords a-leaping = ten commandments
- Eleven pipers piping = eleven faithful apostles (excluding Judas)
- Twelve drummers drumming = twelve points of the Apostles Creed
It’s just lovely, isn’t it! The problem is that it isn’t true.
Firstly, there is no primary evidence for this story — no accounts or even hints from the time that this carol ever had a deeper meaning. In contrast, all the evidence is that it was a popular counting song for a particularly silly time of year.
Secondly, the two main secondary sources for the story date from the late 20th Century. The first was Canadian hymnologist Hugh McKellar in 1979. His account was later picked up and popularised by Fr. Hal Stockert in the mid 1990s.
Thirdly, these two sources — the originators of the tale — both admit it’s apocryphal. Hugh McKellar admitted that he could “at most report what this song’s symbols have suggested to me in the course of four decades.” Fr. Hal Stockert claimed to have first-hand evidence (which he never produced) but he later admitted to that “this tale is made up of both fact and fiction.” ((http://urbanlegends.about.com/od/christmaslore/a/12_days_of_christmas_meaning.htm))
Fourthly, there are also factual errors. For example, the Catholic Church holds that there are twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit, not nine.
This is because Galatians 5:22-23 in the Latin Vulgate translation has twelve fruits.Along with the nine shared with Protestants: love or charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; there is also three extras: generosity, modesty, and chastity. (CCC #1832)
Lastly, the biggest problem is that none of the twelve coded beliefs are distinctly Catholic. There’s no reason that English Catholics would need to code these truths because their Christian brothers and sisters in the Church of England shared them, as did all Protestants.
Look at them again and you see most — if not all — are biblical truths about salvation history, the Holy Spirit, Christian virtues, and the Bible itself. Happily, these aren’t things Catholics and Protestants disagree about!
There’s nothing wrong with finding meanings in popular songs — but this tale has no historical veracity to it.