“On the First day of Christmas my true love sent to me
a Partridge in a Pear Tree.”
The earliest known version of the lyrics were published under the title “The Twelve Days of Christmas sung at King Pepin’s Ball”, as part of a 1780 children’s book, Mirth without Mischief. However, it is thought the song comes from an earlier tradition of rhyming memory-forfeit games. Children would sit in a circle and have to repeat the building rhyme. For any mistake made, the child would have to give up a treat. This technique was used in teaching to improve memory.
A tradition also says this was a coded verse which allowed young Catholics to practice their faith secretly. From 1558 to 1859, Catholicism was outlawed in England. Each verse held a secret message pertaining to the Catholic faith that could be sung by young Catholics without arousing suspicion. Ann Ball in her book Handbook of Catholic Sacramentals decodes the verses as follows:
“The two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments
The three French hens stood for faith, hope, and love.
The four calling birds were the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
The five golden rings rerepresented the first five books of the Old Testament, which describe man’s fall into sin and the great love of God in sending a Savior.
The six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation.
Seven swans a-swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit—–Prophesy, Serving, Teaching, Exhortation, Contribution, Leadership, and Mercy.
The eight maids a-milking were the eight beatitudes.
Nine ladies dancing were the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit—–Charity, Joy, Peace, Patience [Forbearance], Goodness [Kindness], Mildness, Fidelity, Modesty, Continency [Chastity].
The ten lords a-leaping were the Ten Commandments.
The eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful Apostles.
The twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in The Apostles’ Creed.”
The “true love” was Jesus as was the partridge because this bird was known for sacrificing its life for its young.
Today, we all know the song and probably a few variations, and all picture the twelve days leading up to Christmas. However, the actual Twelve Days of Christmas don’t actually start until Christmas Day and continue until January 6th, the Feast of Epiphany. It is also known as Twelvetide and is a festive Christian season to celebrate the nativity of Jesus.
For many Christian denominations, such as the Anglican Church and Lutheran Church, the Twelve Days period is the same as Christmastide; for others, such as the Catholic Church, Christmastide lasts a little longer. The Twelve Days are different from the Octave of Christmas, which is the eight-day period from Christmas Day until January 1st. In Anglicanism, the term “Twelve Days of Christmas” is used liturgically, having its own responsory in the Book of Common Prayer for Matins.
Thus, a child’s rhyming game turn secret code has become an integral part of our Christmas traditions.