Secret Catechism Song or Urban Legend?
Doorway to a secret dwelling for a Jesuit priest in a 16th century English home.
According to this website and a few others, The Twelve Days of Christmas was written as a sort of coded "catechism song" for underground Catholics suffering persecution in Elizabethan England.
Catholics in England during the period 1558 to 1829 were prohibited by law to practice their faith either in public or private. It was illegal to be Catholic until Parliament finally emancipated Catholics in England in 1829.
"The Twelve Days of Christmas" was written in England as one of the "catechism songs" to help young Catholics learn the basics of their faith. In short, it was a coded-message, a memory aid. Since the song sounded like rhyming nonsense, young Catholics could sing the song without fear of imprisonment. The authorities would not know that it was a religious song.
The "true love" mentioned in the song doesn’t refer to an earthly suitor, but it refers to God Himself. The "me" who receives the presents refers to every baptized person. i.e. the Church.
1st Day: The partridge in a pear tree is Christ Jesus upon the Cross. In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge because she would feign injury to decoy a predator away from her nestlings. She was even willing to die for them.
The tree is the symbol of the fall of the human race through the sin of Adam and Eve. It is also the symbol of its redemption by Jesus Christ on the tree of the Cross.
2nd Day: The "two turtle doves" refers to the Old and New Testaments.
3rd Day: The "three French hens" stand for faith, hope and love—the three gifts of the Spirit that abide (1 Corinthians 13).
4th Day: The "four calling birds" refers to the four evangelists who wrote the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—which sing the song of salvation through Jesus Christ.
5th Day: The "five golden rings" represents the first five books of the Bible, also called the Jewish Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
6th Day: The "six geese a-laying" is the six days of creation.
7th Day: The "seven swans a-swimming" refers to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord.
8th Day: The "eight maids a milking " reminded children of the eight beatitudes listed in the Sermon on the Mount.
9th Day: The "nine ladies dancing" were the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit found in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.
10th Day: The "ten lords a-leaping" represents the Ten Commandments.
11th Day: The "eleven pipers piping" refers to the eleven faithful apostles.
12th Day: The ‘twelve drummers drumming" were the twelve points of belief expressed in the Apostles’ Creed: belief in God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, that Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, made man, crucified, died and arose on the third day, that he sits at the right hand of the father and will come again, the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting.
Interesting, but does this story ring true or not?
Snopes.com says No.
Others say Snopes is wrong.
In either case, whether the exact historical details of the origins of the song are true or not, I think someone was thinking in allegorically Christian terms when putting the thing together, and I think it's a pretty cool set of meditation points to bear in mind while singing it.