A 12 days of Christmas mystery

Let me begin with the obvious: A merry, merry 12th day of Christmas to one and all, if you are among the handful of Western Christians who mark this as the end of the traditional Christmas season (as opposed to the nonsectarian season between the first showing of “Elf” on cable TV and the first day of Christmas, which is Dec. 25).

Right now, if you search Google News for “12 days” and “Christmas,” this is what you get. Click here.

As you will note, there are a few stories mixed in there that focus on actual traditions in different cultures linked to the 12th day (or night) and the feast of the Epiphany. But as a rule, the mainstream press has moved on.

This is understandable. I mean, the Christmas ads have run their course.

However, a long, long time ago, 10 days or so before Christmas in fact, Religion News Service released an interesting news feature related to that famous folk song that everyone knows about this season, as in “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The key issue in the piece centers on this question: What is this song about and do the images in it have anything to do with Christianity? Here’s a key piece of the story:

Given their unsuitability as gifts, how did dancing ladies, piping pipers, and a bevy of birds become part of one of the season’s best-known carols? What, if anything, do they symbolize?

It depends on whom you ask.

The song has French origins, and was published in an English children’s book called “Mirth without Mischief” around 1780. Most people believe it began as a memory game sung at Twelfth Night parties. The 12 days of Christmas in Western Christianity refer to the time between Christ’s birth on Dec. 25 and the arrival of the Magi to honor the newborn, known as Epiphany, on Jan. 6.

In recent times, the song has been searched for coded references to Catholic doctrine, ancient Egyptian holidays, Roman myths, and the menu at medieval feasts. It has even become an annual index of economic inflation. Purchasing all the gifts from “Twelve Days” would cost about $23,400, an increase of more than 9 percent from last year, PNC Financial Services Group announced last month.

In the 1990s, a story began floating around the Internet that “The Twelve Days” was used as a secret catechism by Catholics persecuted after the Reformation in England. The “true love” who offers the gifts refers to God, according to this theory. The partridge is Jesus, the two turtle doves are the Old and New Testaments, the three French hens represent the virtues of faith, hope and charity, and so on.

This point of view about the mysterious song actually predates the Internet. However to see a perfect example of the digital-era phenomenon, click here for a sample. This particular version begins like this:

In 16th Century England, it was a crime to be a Catholic. Catholics were forbidden to practice their faith publicly and privately. Throughout history, when Catholics were persecuted they found little traditions to practice their faith and to recognize other Catholics. Thus came along “The Twelve Days of Christmas” to help young Catholics remember the tenets of their faith without getting caught.

Now, the minute people start pinning the “urban legend” label on this kind of message, that sends you straight to the oh-so-picky and invaluable people at Snopes.com, the vast web library that is ground zero for online myths and all kinds of modern folklore. The RNS report includes some solid information from those to accept the Snopes.com verdict that this “hidden catechism” view of the folk song is simple FALSE, with a big red warning label.

However, if you dig into the lengthy Snopes.com report, you will see that this subject gets a bit more complex. You’ll also see that I have been interested in this mystery for a long time.

In my opinion, it’s almost impossible to make a definitive judgment on the origins of any piece of folk music that is as old, and popular, as this one. Thus, I kept hunting until I found the Catholic priest who wrote the article that kicked off all of the chain letters, forwarded emails, etc., etc. It appears that this secret catechism story began with a Father Hal Stockert’s research into the lives of embattled Jesuits in Elizabethan England.

In the column, I noted:

One detail fascinated the priest, a reference to English Catholics using many symbolic songs and poems — some serious, some light-hearted — to help them cling to their faith. One children’s song may have been part of a dance or a game and focused on the season between Dec. 25 and Jan. 6, the Feast of the Epiphany.

It began: “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree.”

In the midst of his other research, Father Stockert took a few notes about “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and later wrote an article about the song for friends and parishioners. He posted this article — complete with documentary references — on an ecumenical computer site in 1982, back in the early days of online networks.

From there, the article went everywhere, with some Catholics and scores of Protestants writing and rewriting the text to suit their own purposes and biases. Alas, there is a sad twist in the priest’s version of the final fate of his article:

Most importantly, none of these articles include his bibliographical references.

“I’ve got all kinds of people writing me demanding references for my work,” he said. “I wish I could give them what they want, but all of my notes were ruined when our church had a plumbing leak and the basement flooded.” Meanwhile, he said, his copy of the original article is on “a computer floppy disk that is so old that nobody has a machine that can read it, anymore.”

As it turns out, the priest and the skeptics at Snopes.com are not all that far apart on many of their conclusions and Stockert was quick to say that — back in 1999.

This [Snopes.com] site claims it is a secular song, probably with French roots. This “Twelve Days of Christmas” may also have become confused with a Christian song, which dates back to 1625, that is often called “In Those Twelve Days.”

It is also possible, said Father Stockert, that a French song was claimed by English Catholics or that the two songs were blended.

“I’m sure there are elements of legend in this,” he said. “But if it is a legend, it’s a legend that dates back to the days of Queen Elizabeth. Maybe somebody will go dig this all up again.”

There you go. Maybe RNS can follow up its fine story with even more research. The key to the mystery behind this strange little song is still out there somewhere.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://joe-perez.com/blog Joe Perez

    Well there you go. Somehow it doesn’t seem all that surprising that there is a French background to the song, though I can’t pin my finger on why that is so.

  • http://www.piousfabrications.com David Withun

    “In recent times, the song has been searched for coded references to Catholic doctrine, ancient Egyptian holidays, Roman myths, and the menu at medieval feasts.”

    I’ll bet the 12 drummers drumming were awful crunchy.

  • Jerry

    Wikipedia has some interesting facts about the song including the following, but there are a number of “weasel words” so it’s clear that there’s a lot of speculation involved with the song.

    It has been suggested by a number of sources over the years that the pear tree is in fact supposed to be perdrix, French for partridge and pronounced per-dree, and was simply copied down incorrectly when the oral version of the game was transcribed. The original line would have been: “A partridge, une perdrix.”[10]

    Some misinterpretations have crept into the English-language version over the years. The fourth day’s gift is often stated as four “calling” birds but originally was four “colly” birds, using another word for a blackbird.[1][9] The fifth day’s gift of gold rings refers not to jewelry but to ring-necked birds such as the ring-necked pheasant[1]; or to “five goldspinks” – a goldspink being an old name for a Goldfinch[11]. When these errors are corrected, the pattern of the first seven gifts all being birds is restored.

  • david s

    As a child in the late 60s, I went to a program at the Smithsonian about Christmas customs. The “Twelve Days of Christmas” wasn’t the only counting song like this. There were others, one of which was sung by the group presenting the program. It went something like:

    Twelve for the twelve Apostles,
    Eleven for the eleven who went to heaven,
    Ten for the Ten Commandments,
    Nine for the nine bright shiners,
    Eight for the April rainers,
    Seven for seven stars in the sky,
    Six for the proud walkers,
    Five for the symbols at your door,
    Four for the Gospel makers,
    Three, three the rivals,
    Two, two, the lily white boys covered all in green, oh,
    One is one and all alone, and ever more shall be so.

    Some of these have obvious religious references, some are pretty obscure, and I don’t remember the references (nor do I guarantee the accuracy of my memory).

    A more familiar example of a counting song might be the Seven Joys of Mary…The first good joy that Mary had, it was the joy of one….To see the Blessed Jesus Christ ….
    1. When He was first her Son,
    2. To make the lame to go,
    3. To make the blind to see,
    4. To read the Bible oer,
    5. To bring the dead to life,
    6. Upon the Crucifix,
    7. Ascending into heaven.

  • David, Chicago

    The persecuted Catholics theory simply holds no water. The doctrinal differences between Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism are not such that they would render the lyrics a specifically Roman Catholic code. Teaching children that there were 12 apostles and 4 gospels would not get you thrown into the Tower by Anglican officials. There are Anglicans who hold that there are 7 sacraments. Talk about NOT “getting religion.” Some of my co-religionists–Roman Catholics–seem to be so eager to be persecuted that their wishful thinking clouds their reason. (And no, I am not denying or minimizing the fact that Roman Catholics were tortured by Anglicans AND VICE VERSA.)

  • David, Chicago

    Tortured and murdered, I meant to say.

  • John of Roncesvalles

    After reading Clair Asquith’s controversial book Shadowplay on the subtext of Shakespeare’s plays, the origins of this song to Elizabethan Catholics with contacts to French Catholics seems to dovetail with her findings, along with Shakespeare’s use of the term “true love” throughout much of his work.

  • John of Roncesvalles

    Just to expand on my comment, according to Asquith, when Shakespeare mentions ‘true love’ in his plays he is most often referring to the old church, or Roman Catholic Church rather than God as mentioned in this article, during the time of the English Reformation.

  • Sara

    To David of Chicago: I am unsure as to whether the 12 days of Christmas carol is, in fact, an underground Catholic catechetical tool. However, as a professor of intellectual history, sixteenth and seventeenth-century English Protestantism is my area of study, and I (and hundreds of academic texts) can assure you that the early Church of England was by no means decidedly supportive of the seven sacraments. The Articles of Religion and the public and private discourses concerning their content and composition reveal that the early C of E was fully predestinarian-Reformed. If you are curious consult the works of Archbishop Whitgift, his exchange with Thomas Cartwright, Archbishop Jewel, Archbishop Cranmer and his exchange with the Italian Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli and the German Reformer Heinrich Bullinger. Two nice texts that discuss this development are Gary Jenkins’ John Jewel and the English National Church and Nicholas Tyacke’s book, Anti-Calvinists. It might be helpful to remember that the “Anglican Church” we are familiar with is a more recent theological and institutional development (heavily late eighteenth and nineteenth century).

  • Diane

    why are we too celebrate Christmas until the Baptism of the Lord (versus Epiphany)?

  • Diane

    I mean ‘to’ not ‘too’

  • Will E

    Any well researched article on Christmas counting songs should reference “Children Go Where I Send Thee.” Verse 12 is as so:

    Children, go where I send thee
    How shall I send thee?
    I’m gonna send thee twelve by twelve
    Twelve for the twelve Apostles
    Eleven for the eleven deriders
    Ten for the ten commandments
    Nine for the nine all dressed so fine
    Eight for the eight that stood at the gate
    Seven for the seven that never got to heaven
    Six for the six that never got fixed
    Five for the gospel preachers
    Four for the four that stood at the door
    Three for the Hebrew children
    Two for Paul and Silas
    One for the little bitty baby
    Born, born, born in Bethlehem.

  • JWB

    Restating David’s point in a hopefully less polemical fashion, it just seems incredibly improbable that any secret-code catechism for recusants would make 11 out of its 12 points (all but the number of the Sacraments) issues on which the “secret” Roman Catholic position was fully consonant with the public teaching of the Church of England. (Unless it’s 10 out of 12 because there’s a different number for fruits of the Spirit, but the RC position on that has been far from consistent — the Veni Creator Spiritus assumes 7 rather than 9 in Latin as well as in English.) And I’m trying to figure out why tmatt’s journalistic background doesn’t make him more suspicious of the claim that all of the scholarly research and citations backing up this claim were mysteriously lost in a flood. Doesn’t that remind him of the saga of Michael Bellesiles?

  • Julia

    it just seems incredibly improbable that any secret-code catechism for recusants would make 11 out of its 12 points (all but the number of the Sacraments) issues on which the “secret” Roman Catholic position was fully consonant with the public teaching of the Church of England.

    Like Sara noted- you can’t assume the 15th and 16th century state church in England is identical to the Anglicanism that is familiar now.

    I’m not sure that “catechism” is the right term to use. It’s more likely to to be a sung game for children or casual oral memory device than a formal written teaching tool. After all, even rosaries and crucifixes were illegal at that time and could get you in trouble.


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