What do the 12 Days of Christmas mean?


wiseGEEK Writing Contest

Some unconfirmed resources ascribe hidden religious meanings to the ostensibly secular song, “The 12 Days of Christmas.” As fun as the idea can be, there is no proof of the claim that the song is a list of symbols created secretly to teach catechism to oppressed Reformation-era Catholics under Anglican control in England. Perhaps you've heard it: the partridge is said to be Jesus Christ, the turtledoves are the Old and New Testaments, the “calling” (actually, colly) birds are really the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John… The earliest evidence of the song isn't even English, but lies in French and Scandinavian origins. The 12 days between Christmas and Jan. 6 – the Epiphany - were a time for celebration and feasting in the Middle Ages. The religious meanings ascribed were common to all Christians of the time, not Catholic-specific, so there would have been no need for secrecy. The general description of birds, music and dancing to celebrate the holiday was common to all Christians. Historically the song may have been confused with another song called “A New Dial,” or “In Those Twelve Days” - basically, a memory game. It includes no birds, maids, or rings, but by interesting coincidence lists many of the “secret meanings” in the urban legend:

“What are they but one? We have one God alone. What are they but two? Two testaments Old and New. …What are they but six? Six days to labor is not wrong, For God himself did work so long…”

A few other misinterpretations of the Christmas song have stuck over the years, especially when it comes to birds. Colly birds are blackbirds, not white “calling” birds. The five golden rings are not jewelry, but ring-necked pheasant-like creatures which were eaten at feast times. With these, a seven-day pattern of edible birds (yes, they ate swans and blackbirds in the Middle Ages) is reestablished from the original French version. Follow that with five days to dance off the added pounds (lords leaping, ladies dancing), and the song paints a cohesive celebratory picture. During the twelve days of Christmas, traditional roles were often relaxed and society's tables turned. During celebrations, masters waited on their servants. There was sanctioned cross-dressing: men dressed as women, and women as men. Some of these traditions may have been adapted from pagan customs, such as the Roman Saturnalia (feast for the God of Saturn/solstice), which included similar customs.

submitted by Sholeh Patrick