The Symbolism of the 12 Days of Christmas

Most of us are familiar with the Christmas song, “The 12 Days of Christmas,” even though many folks might have a bit of trouble keeping the lines of the song straight after about the sixth day! This song has been sung for generations, and is a traditional part of the Christmas season. There have even been many versions of the song that have come out, since the structure lends itself well to variation and even humor. But did you ever stop to think what this seemingly nonsensical song really is about? While there is some disagreement over the actual purpose for “The 12 Days of Christmas” among historians, the theories regarding this fun and lively song are quite intriguing.

What are the 12 Days of Christmas?

First, the 12 days of Christmas stand for the days of Epiphany, which in most cultures begins on December 26 and goes until January 6. The western church celebrates this time as the period it took the magi to arrive to see the Christ child. Some cultures even call January 6 Three Kings Day, and some celebrate that date as their gift-giving day of the seasons. This is to symbolize the gifts that the kings brought to Jesus, of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Other cultures traditionally give a gift on each of the 12 days of Christmas, just as the song goes. Other cultures have modified the 12 days of Christmas into a pagan celebration that celebrates the changing of year and the driving out of evil spirits at this pivotal time.

Some historians have found evidence to suggest that the gifts given in “The 12 Days of Christmas” are symbols that the Catholic Church created to help teach catechism to Catholic children. This theory dates back to the 16th century, during the religious wars in England. Each of the gifts represents a fundamental point of the Catholic faith. For example, the “true love” cited in the song was God, and the “me” that is the recipient of the gifts represents every baptized believer of the faith. Each of the gifts represents a different aspect of catechism to remember. The “partridge in a pear tree” stands for Jesus Christ, “two turtle doves” represent the Old and New Testaments and “three French hens” are for the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love.

The song continues on in this manner, until you get to the “twelve drummers drumming,” which refer to the twelve points of the Apostles Creed. Isn’t it interesting that a fun children’s song called “The 12 Days of Christmas” can carry so much hidden meaning for the Christian church? After all, the birth of Jesus Christ is what Christmas is all about for believers of the faith everywhere.