Myth # 102: Twelve Days of Christmas song has a secret meaning

Okay, here’s another Christmas myth. One I hadn’t planned to include on the blog because I didn’t think it was a museum-related myth. But last week I was touring an early-nineteenth-century historic house and the guide presented this fable as truth, so I guess it’s fair game.

A partridge not in a pear tree

A partridge not in a pear tree

There is a secret code myth related to the well-known song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” According to this myth, the song is an underground catechism song for Catholics in England who were oppressed during the late 1500s, 1600s, and 1700s. As the story goes, persecution of Catholics was so severe that they dared not teach their children their beliefs, so this song was written as a memory aid. Here is the supposed “secret” meaning behind the song:

1 Partridge/Pear tree stands for Jesus

2 turtle doves = Old & New Testaments

3 French hens = faith, hope, love or the Holy Trinity or the 3 gifts of Magi (versions differ)

4 collie birds = four gospels

5 golden rings = Pentateuch (first 5 books of Bible)

6 geese a-laying = 6 days God created the Earth

7 swans a-swimming = the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit (prophecy, ministry, teaching, giving, exhortation, leading, compassion . . again, versions differ on these)

8 maids a-milking = the 8 beatitudes (blessed are  . . .)

9 drummers drumming = the 9 fruits of the Holy Spirit (love, joy, peace, gentleness, faith, meekness, etc. . . . but not consistent)

10 pipers piping = the ten commandments

11 ladies dancing = the eleven apostles (Judas doesn’t count)

12 lords a-leaping = 12 statements in Apostles’ Creed

With apologies to Eliz. Barrett Browning: How to debunk thee? Let me count the ways . . .

First and foremost, there is no historical documentation. The claim first surfaced in 1979 when it was proposed by a Canadian English teacher and part-time hymnologist who said the idea came from conversations he had with elderly Canadians. “I can at most report what this song’s symbols have suggested to me in the course of four decades.” This rather weak statement was soon taken up and popularized by a Catholic priest who claims he saw a reference to it “as an aside” in some very old letters from Irish priests, but his notes were ruined in a basement plumbing leak and the original information is, he said,  on “a computer floppy disk that is so old that nobody has a machine that can read it anymore.” (And the dog ate my homework.)

The original song is not even English, but French. And as a Catholic country (that persecuted Protestants), the French had no need to compose songs with secret religious meaning.

12 Days Mirth MischiefHow do we know it’s French in origin? It’s hard to date a song: the earliest published form in English comes in a 1780 children’s book, Mirth Without Mischief, but it’s clearly earlier than that. The title page on Mirth Without Mischief (left) says “Sung at King Pepin’s ball.” There is no English King Pepin, but Pepin the Short was the father of Charlemagne. Pepin ruled from 752 to 768.  One piece of evidence for French origin is that the partridge was unknown in England until 1770s when it was introduced from France. And the song has that light, dancing feel of a French carol.

Aside: I had wondered, so perhaps you do too, about the difference between a carol and a hymn. A carol is based on dance music, light and dancy, simple, popular, joyful, with a religious impulse. Many were developed in France between 1400-1650. Examples of a carol would include Deck the Halls and Il est ne le divin enfant. Examples of hymns: We Three Kings, O Come All Ye Faithful, and Silent Night.

There is no religious connection to the objects, only to the numbers; in other words, no relationship exists between concept and symbol. How does 8 maids a milking remind one of the 8 beatitudes? How does the irreverent mental picture of lords a-leaping remind one of the Apostles’ Creed?2002-959

The symbolism varies with different versions of the song—how can something meant to be a memory aid have so many variations? For example, three French hens supposedly stood for faith, hope, love. Or in some variations, the Holy Trinity. Or in others, the 3 gifts of Magi. 

Another major problem: none of the secret meanings are distinctly Catholic; all are also fundamental to Church of England and other Christian denominations. All doctrines have Old and New Testament, 10 commandments,  3 gifts of the Magi, 11 faithful apostles, etc. There is no reason for Catholics to have to hide their knowledge of these religious tenets. Conversely, nothing uniquely Catholic appears here—no mention of the Pope or the Virgin Mary or confession, concepts that had been suppressed by the Anglican church. There is no reason why young Catholics could not be taught openly about the four gospels or the ten commandments.

Finally, the lyrics are entirely secular and playful, not spiritual.

WHAT, THEN, IS THIS SONG?

A memory-and-forfeits game.

Every time the song is mentioned in a book, it is said to be a forfeit game: each person repeats the gifts and when he/she misses one, he pays a forfeit (a kiss or sweetmeat) for the mistake. To wit: an 19th-c. novel, The Ashen Faggot: A Tale of Christmas: “When all the raisins had been extracted and eaten . . . a cry for forfeits arose. So the party sat down round Mabel on benches brought out from under the table, and Mabel began, ‘The first day of Christmas my true love sent to me a partridge and a pear tree . . . And so on. Each day was taken up and repeated all round; and for every breakdown (except by little Maggie, who struggled with desperately earnest round eyes to follow the rest correctly, but with very comical results) the player who made the slip was duly noted down by Mabel for a forfeit.’ ”

According to University of Massachusetts at Amherst professor and chairman of the Classics Dept. Edward Phinney in 1990, it is a love song : “If you think of all the things being presented, you realize they’re all gifts from a lover to a woman. Some of them are rather impossible to give, like eight maids a milking and nine ladies dancing. All those ladies and dancing and pipers and drums imply this is a wedding.” Phinney also points out the un-Biblical fertility symbols: partridge is famous aphrodisiac; six geese a-laying are reproducing. Seven verses are birds which are symbols of fertility and the pear itself is a male fertility symbol. Swans are significant in tales about love. “The whole song,” says Phinney, “seems to me to point to a festival of joy and love more appropriate to a secular holiday like Valentine’s Day or May Day than a religious holiday.” That may seem odd, but when you remember that weddings were a prominent feature of the Christmas season, the link seems more plausible.

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12 Responses to Myth # 102: Twelve Days of Christmas song has a secret meaning

  1. Clark Bunch says:

    I encountered this myth for the first time just a year or two ago. The difference is that instead of a museum I was listening to a Baptist preacher share the story as a sermon illustration; he had heard it as truth and shared it as truth.

    I wrote a very similar post just a couple of days ago. Yours may be better than mine: http://themasterstable.wordpress.com/2012/12/27/what-about-the-12-days-of-christmas/

    • Mary Miley says:

      Enjoyed your post very much, Clark. You make a good point about it’s new-ness. If such a myth were true, it would have been talked about and written about for centuries past. Anyway, it’s nice to know I’m not hanging out there all alone!

  2. Elaine says:

    “Deck the Halls” is actually Pagan and relates to the Yule celebration… it contains no Christian religious references but many, many Pagan symbols.

  3. Katherine Louise says:

    Thank you for this excellent explanation. I encountered this myth just last year, when I was teaching myself the song. Many online sources discuss the secret messages–I wondered how anyone could possibly remember them–the lyrics do not associate with the secrets, except in numbers of things. What helped me remember the words were the internal hierarchies–geese, then swans; maids, ladies, lords. Although I just noticed that your order is different than what I learned–I know it as 8 maids, 9 ladies, 10 lords, 11 pipers, 12 drummers. Curious!

    • Mary Miley says:

      Yes, the order changes in different versions, which is yet another reason against the “secret meaning” that I hadn’t come across. The only order that seems genuinely historical is the division between birds and people: the first 7 gifts are birds, the last 5 are people. Fun topic, huh??

  4. Deborah Brower says:

    Congratulations and thanks for all your hard work providing another year of debunking. The topics are always interesting and responses informative. It is really helpful to have a forum to sort this stuff out in a friendly way. Have a appy and equally successful New Year!

    • Mary Miley says:

      You’re very welcome! Thanks go to you for your contributions, too.
      I have a few more myths in the works, but will run out soon. Then I think I’ll start to re-post the old ones, maybe adding a little or incorporating some of the comments into the text. We’ll see.

  5. fireside feasts says:

    “none of the secret meanings are distinctly Catholic; all are also fundamental to Church of England and other Christian denominations.”
    Yeah, but Catholicism came first. The others were created later and in protest against it. Not that I’m disputing the myth as a whole, but this line…not so much! It doesn’t hold up.

  6. azambone says:

    Reblogged this on Notanda and commented:
    One of the most annoying and unkillable Christmas history myths is that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is actually a secret catechism…or something. It particularly annoys me because I once accepted it. And it was even more annoying when I heard a nice lady at Colonial Williamsburg not only repeating the myth at Christiana Campbell’s Tavern one night, but also passing out handouts explaining the “code.”

    Anyway, given that the twelve days of Christmas are over, you’ll have to wait until next year to correct your annoying, know-it-all Aunt Sally when she trots this one out.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Oh, geez, I’m so embarrassed! Colonial Williamsburg had me give a public lecture last November about this myth–another example of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing.

  7. kbchrist says:

    Do you know of any reason for it to be 12 days? My understanding was that it was the twelve days between Christmas and Kings’ Day, but with the courting connotations that seems unlikely

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