Rather than the twelve days before Christmas Day, this period of time actually runs from December 26th to the Epiphany on January 6th
The Epiphany, also known as”Twelfth Night”, on the 6th January, is the time that the Christian Church celebrates the visit of the Three Wise Men to the Christ child.
In Medieval England, this period of twelve days became a time of celebration and continuous feasting, with an abundant supply of meat due to the increased slaughter of animals to save farmers from the hardship of feeding them through the long winter season. The Yule log burning went on for 12 nights and wassailing ceremonies also took place during these 12 days to counter the influence of the evil spirits.
The meaning of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” carol
There are various differing tales about the origins of this carol which include an “urban legend” that the song was written to communicate and teach the basic beliefs of the Catholic faith to young Catholics, during the period 1558-1829, when it was illegal to worship either in public or private. It was believed that each of the “gifts” was a coded message symbolizing different elements of the Catholic religion.
A partridge in a pear tree symbolizes Jesus Christ on the cross
Two turtle doves are the Old and the New Testaments.
Three French hens represent the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love from the first book of Corinthians
Four calling birds are the four Evangelists or Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Five gold rings represent the first five books of the Old Testament telling the story of man’s fall from grace or the Catholic Church’s five obligatory sacraments of baptism, communion, confirmation, penance and last rites
Six geese a laying are the six days of creation
Seven swans a-swimming symbolize the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit – wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord God
Eight maids a-milking stand for the eight Beatitudes mentioned by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount
Nine ladies dancing stands for the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit – love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control from the Book of Galatians
Ten lords a-leaping are the Ten Commandments
Eleven pipers piping represent the eleven faithful disciples
Twelve drummers drumming are the twelve points of belief expressed in the Apostles’ Creed.
Another version of the origin of this carol
According to The New Oxford Book of Carols, the carol is based on a memory game played on Twelfth Night many years ago. Players sang a verse in turn and then added a gift but they had to remember all the earlier gifts as they sang through the list of presents. Anyone who forgot a gift would have to pay a forfeit to entertain the others.
Whatever the true origin of the carol is, it did form part of Christmas celebrations in Europe and Scandinavia from the 16th century and was published in London around 1780, in Mirth Without Mischief a collection of children’s rhymes.
- Green J, Christmas Miscellany, Skyhorse Publishing, New York 2009