It might seem unbelievable given that the radio has been blasting Christmas tunes since December 1st, but the true Christmas season actually starts on Christmas Day itself. That’s right: December 25 marks the official start of the 12 days of Christmas, the Christian tradition that shares its name with a relentlessly stick-in-your-head Christmas carol.
Here are a few things you may not have known about the song and the season.
What are the 12 days of Christmas?
The 12 days of Christmas is the period that in Christian theology marks the span between the birth of Christ and the coming of the Magi — the three wise men. It begins on December 25 (Christmas) and runs through January 6 (the Epiphany, sometimes also called Three Kings’ Day). Additionally, the four weeks preceding Christmas are collectively known as Advent, which begins four Sundays before Christmas and ends on December 24.
Some families choose to mark the 12-day period by observing the feast days of various saints (including St. Stephen on December 26) and planning daily Christmas-related activities, but for many, after December 25 things go back to business as usual.
“The 12 Days of Christmas” is also a Christmas carol in which the singer brags about all the cool gifts they received from their “true love” during the 12 days of Christmas. Each verse builds on the previous one, serving as a really effective way to annoy family members on road trips.
But according to the catholic news agency.com, Catholics in England during the period 1558 to 1829, when Parliament finally emancipated Catholics in England, were prohibited from ANY practice of their faith by law – private OR public. It was a crime to BE a Catholic.
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” was written in England as one of the “catechism songs” to help young Catholics learn the tenets of their faith – a memory aid, when to be caught with anything in writing indicating adherence to the Catholic faith could not only get you imprisoned, it could get you hanged, or shortened by a head – or hanged, drawn and quartered, a rather peculiar and ghastly punishment I’m not aware was ever practiced anywhere else. Hanging, drawing and quartering involved hanging a person by the neck until they had almost, but not quite, suffocated to death; then the party was taken down from the gallows, and disemboweled while still alive; and while the entrails were still lying on the street, where the executioners stomped all over them, the victim was tied to four large farm horses, and literally torn into five parts – one to each limb and the remaining torso.
The songs gifts are hidden meanings to the teachings of the faith. The “true love” mentioned in the song doesn’t refer to an earthly suitor, it refers to God Himself. The “me” who receives the presents refers to every baptized person. The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge which feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings, much in memory of the expression of Christ’s sadness over the fate of Jerusalem: “Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered thee under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but thou wouldst not have it so…”
“My true love” refers to God Himself, the giver of all good gifts.
- The First Day of Christmas – A Partridge in a Pear Tree
The partridge in a pear tree refers to Jesus. A mother partridge, when in the presence of a predator, is willing to risk injury and death to save her chicks. This image points to Christ’s death on the cross to save his people and echoes Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…” (Luke 13:34).
- The Second Day of Christmas – Two Turtle Doves
The two turtle doves represent the Old and New Testaments, which together give the full story of God’s creation, his love for his people, how his people broke their relationship with God, his plan to redeem them, and what is to come as they are reunited to God and how they will worship him forever.
- The Third Day of Christmas – Three French Hens
There are two versions of what the three French hens stand for. Some say they are the three Biblical virtues the author Paul espoused in 1 Corinthians 13:13: Faith, Hope, and Love.
Others claim the three French hens represent the three precious gifts the Wise Men brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and inspire us to bring our best to Christ.
- The Fourth Day of Christmas – Four Calling Birds
The four calling birds stand for the four gospels that call all people to Christ.
- The Fifth Day of Christmas – Five Golden Rings
The five golden rings represent the Torah, which Christians call the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. These books give a rich history of God’s people and point to God’s grace in spite of their unfaithfulness.
- The Sixth Day of Christmas – Six Geese A-Laying
The six geese represent the six days of creation.
- The Seventh Day of Christmas – Seven Swans A-Swimming
The seven swans tell of the seven gifts the Holy Spirit gives, described in Romans 12:6-8: prophecy, service, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading and compassion.
- The Eighth Day of Christmas – Eight Maids A-Milking
The eight maids are the eight Beatitudes Jesus preached in Matthew 5:3-10:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
- The Ninth Day of Christmas – Nine Ladies Dancing
The nine ladies are the nine Fruit of the Spirit that distinguishes the character of a follower of Christ: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22)
“Dancing” is an appropriate description for this day, I think, for when our lives are marked by these characteristics, our spirits can’t help but want to dance!
- The Tenth Day of Christmas – Ten Lords A-Leaping
The ten lords are the Ten Commandments God gives his people to show them how to live.
- The Eleventh Day of Christmas – Eleven Pipers Piping
The eleven pipers are the eleven apostles who remained faithful to Jesus: Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. The number of apostles is eleven, not twelve, because the twelfth, Judas Iscariot, betrayed Jesus.
- The Twelfth Day of Christmas – Twelve Drummers Drumming
The Apostles’ Creed, one of the most widely accepted creeds across Christendom, includes twelve points of doctrine that outline what Christians believe