Fact and Theory
Posts about the Catholic meaning of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a carol tradition as fashionable as memes disparaging “Mary Did You Know”.
The theory is this: during the Reformation, persecuted English Catholics wrote the song to teach their children the catechism. The partridge in the pear tree was Jesus, the two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments, and so on. The song allowed them to teach their children the Faith without facing jail time or having their lands forfeited.
Unfortunately, none of that is true. However, there is still profound Catholic meaning to “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, and I would like to argue that Catholics at should still claim it.
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” most likely originated in France. We don’t know exactly when it was written, but the first recorded copy dates to 1780. Many of the lyrics were different than the version we hear today. One of the variants was even about bear-baiting because apparently blood sports were viewed as a good way to prepare for Baby Jesus.
The Conspiracy Theory
Three different men came up with this theory around the same time. The most influential of the three, Fr. Hal Stockert, wrote an essay in 1982 called “Origin of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’: An Underground Catechism”, in which he went into great detail about the process of being drawn and quartered.
A decade or so after this, chain emails became popular and Fr. Stockert’s article began to appear regularly in people’s inboxes. He later claimed that he learned of the symbolism by reading old letters of priests from Ireland. When he was asked to share these sources, he said that the letters had been destroyed in a flood, and that his original research was on a floppy disk so old that no computer could read it (source and another).
How We Know It’s Not a Secret Catechism
While it is interesting that three people came up with this theory independently, it is almost certainly not true. There are at least three reasons we can be fairly confident that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” wasn’t created by persecuted Elizabethan Catholics:
- There are no existing primary sources that mention the song being used in this way. In addition, there is no evidence that the song even existed in Elizabethan times.
- Almost none of the originally proposed symbols in the song are subjects about which Catholics and Anglicans differ. Catholics wouldn’t have needed a secret song for subjects about which they agreed with Anglicans. Furthermore, wouldn’t it have been more effective to focus on subjects upon which they disagreed, like the papacy or whether English lords should be living in former abbeys?
- It’s not an effective teaching tool because many of the gifts don’t easily translate to their supposed catechetical lesson. How are milkmaids tied to the beatitudes, or swimming swans to the gifts of the Holy Spirit?
Why We Should Still Claim It
I have a few reasons we should still teach our kids about “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. First, just because the song wasn’t written for catechetical lessons doesn’t mean we can’t use it for them now. Personally, I’ve thought of at least some of the symbols every time I’ve heard the song since I first read about the supposed story. I even added a few.
Second, this song is just … not good. It’s annoying (although new versions are fun). Having a meaning assigned to it makes it a lot easier to sit through at your child’s Christmas concert. I’m only half-joking.
Third and more importantly, this song is a reminder that Christmas is not just one day. In many Christian denominations, Christmas ends at midnight on December 25. In the Catholic Faith, the Christmas season lasts from the vigil Mass on Christmas Eve until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, January 12 in 2020 (source). The first twelve days are packed with important feasts and solemnities that we really ought to celebrate, too. These include:
- St. Stephen the First Martyr: December 26
- St. John the Evangelist: December 27
- The Holy Innocents: December 28
- The Holy Family: December 29
- Mary, Mother of God: January 1
- Epiphany: January 6
Some of you might have grown up knowing this, but I didn’t know it until I was a grown woman. I went to Adoration service over Christmas break during my freshman year of college and thought it was strange that we sang “O Come Let Us Adore Him” a week after Christmas Day. Enough people complained that the music minister had to make an announcement. He actually referenced “The Twelve Days of Christmas” to get us to understand.
So even if the popular theory about “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is wrong, it can still serve a valuable role today. Most of the people reading this probably aren’t risking being literally drawn and quartered if they practice their faith (although there are undoubtedly many martyrs being made), but our U.S. parishes face many crises. One of these is a crisis of culture.
I mentioned the story of how I learned about the full season of Christmas because it’s funny, but there’s a darker truth to that story. That gymnasium was full of practicing Catholics who wanted to be at Adoration, and yet many of us still didn’t know that Christmas lasted for longer than a day. That’s a huge problem.
We’ve come up with lots of innovative ways to learn about the Faith through videos, study programs, books, and more in the past ten years. That’s all good and necessary, but we also need simpler means of transmitting the Faith. A silly counting song is a good place to start, especially if it reminds us that our True Love has gifts to give us this Christmas season.
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Melissa Keating is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in St. Louis. She has been writing weird things that Catholics seem to like since her freshman year at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, where she graduated with degrees in communications and foreign languages in 2012. Melissa then took her oddball talents to the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), where she helped found the Digital Campus. She has worked on award-winning multi-media stories for the Archdiocese of Denver and contributed to The Catholic Hipster Handbook before moving back home to St. Louis, where she helped parishes start support groups for the bereaved and the divorced and separated.