12 Days of Christmas

In the Christian calendar, the 12 days of Christmas refer to the period between Christmas (December 25) and Epiphany (January 6), celebrated as the day the Wise Men, or Magi, arrived in Bethlehem to give presents to the baby Jesus. In Scandinavia and parts of present-day Germany, these religious celebrations were combined with the secular (and sometimes pagan) New Year's festivities. It is from these cultures that we get the popular holiday carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas.

The Christmas Carol

The traditional Christmas carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas, is thought to date from 16th century and from the region that encompasses present-day Germany and Scandinavia. The song is a cumulative one, where each verse adds a new gift to the gifts mentioned in the previous verse, up to the twelve days. In the carol, the singer's "true love" gets a partridge in a pear tree, two turtle doves, three French hens, four calling birds, five golden rings, six geese a-laying, seven swans a-swimming, eight maids a-milking, nine ladies dancing, ten lords a-leaping, eleven pipers piping, and twelve drummers drumming. For the full text of the song, click here.

Symbolism

A widely believed, but generally thought to be erroneous, urban myth holds that the carol is ripe with hidden Christian meanings. Since the 16th century was not known for its religious tolerance, some people considered the song to be an affirmation of the songwriter's and singer's faith. According to this theory, the gifts symbolize the following:

  • Partridge in a Pear Tree - Jesus, as described in Luke 13:34
  • Two Turtle Doves - The old and new testaments of the Bible
  • Three French Hens - The Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost)
  • Four Calling Birds - The Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
  • Five Golden Rings - The Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible
  • Six Geese a-Laying - The six days of the Creation
  • Seven Swans a-Swimming - The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit
  • Eight Maids a-Milking - The eight beatitudes
  • Nine Ladies Dancing - The nine fruits of the Holy Spirit
  • Ten Lord a-Leaping - The Ten Commandments
  • Eleven Pipers Piping - The eleven faithful apostles
  • Twelve Drummers Drumming - The doctrines in the Apostles' Creed

The more commonly held view is that the carol is a children's memory game and fun seasonal tune, with no hidden meanings.

The 12 Days of Christmas in Popular Culture

In recent history, The 12 Days of Christmas has been parodied by scores of performers and comedians, from Jeff Foxworthy to Miss Piggy and the Muppets. One frequently reprinted parody has an earnest suitor trying to impress his "true love" by replicating the gifts in the carol... only to have her sue him for the emotional trauma of having 12 drummers drumming, 11 pipers piping… in her house.

Journalists often amuse themselves around the holidays by trying to place a current dollar value on the twelve gifts. For example, in 2005, MSN Money estimated the total cost of the gifts to be $72,608.02. This was up 10 percent from the previous year.

12 Days of Christmas