Researching The Twelve Days of Christmas and what it means to us
The 12 Days of Christmas begin December 25th and end January 5th the day prior to the Feast of Epiphany. The Twelvetide was created in the year 567 by the Council of Tours as a sacred and festive season of Advent (waiting) and fasting to prepare for the feast of Epiphany. They used these twelve days as a time of teaching for new believers and children, preparing them for a meaningful and impactful Feast of Epiphany on January 6th. It was a time of re-dedication and renewal for all believers, and can be for us today!
During the Twelvetide, depending where and when you lived, you may have attended church daily (Dark Ages and some Eastern European churches). Small, simple symbolic gifts, like the ones you might find in a small drawer in a modern day Advent calendar, would be given to children as an object lesson to connect with the symbol and lesson of the day.
The song we know came out of England in 1780 arranged by Frederic Austin who is credited with slightly changing the original symbol “five gold rings” in order to lengthen that section musically to make a transition and pause (when you could catch your breath 😉), singing instead “five golden rings”.
Through research I have found several different versions of the poems used for Twelvetide with a similar root set of symbols (indicating they all represent the same basic information). But variants of the symbols, using some context from the time and place, but not connected with any sacred sources, would infer someone taking the basic set and adding cultural expressions of their day, likely to dig at Christians, what we call satire. We consider them secular versions meant to apply worldly meaning to sacred symbols. I can appreciate the modern song and recognize the symbols for what they represent without feeling conflicted. 🎄
ON TO THE POEM:
Before we begin, remember that this is a season of re-dedication and renewal, to begin a new year with our hearts and minds reset. The most important message of the lesson is that God is meant to be first in our lives always because even before we knew Him, He loved us. God is represented in the song as “true love” rather than True King of my life and Giver of ALL Gifts.
What do the symbols of these gifts teach us?
1st day Dec. 25 – On the First Day of Christmas my True Love sent to me, A Partridge in a Pear Tree – Jesus is the partridge, a bird known to die in order to protect it’s young. Believe it or not, the first day reflects on the crucified Christ on the tree known as the cross, not the baby in the manger. However, without the manger, there could be no Resurrection! Amen!
2nd day Dec. 26 – Two Turtledoves – The twin birds, always appearing exactly alike, represent the Old and New Testaments, and their equal importance and Shared Source. [Note: I also saw in some lists that this represented the duel nature of Christ as 100% divine and 100% human. One may have been taught in one region, the second in another. I’m not sure. But the first was more prevalent.]
3rd day Dec. 27 – Three French Hens – Represent faith, hope and love. (See 1 Corinthians 13)
4th day Dec. 28 – Four Colly Birds/Four Calling Birds – Colly means “black as coal or soot”. Imagine the sound of four black birds outside your window. Their calls are loud and heard from afar, a better representation of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and the four Gospel books with their name and the message heard around the world. As times change and the words we use change with them, it seems “calling” replaced “colly” and we don’t know why for certain.
5th day Dec. 29 – Five Gold Rings – The Torah (or Pentateuch); the first five books of the Old Testament. Each one precious.
6th day Dec. 30 – Six Geese a-Laying – Genesis reference to the first six days when God created everything.
7th day Dec. 31 – Seven Swans a-Swimming – Swans are considered (as symbols) to possess beauty and grace. The Sevenfold Gifts of Holy Spirit provide beauty and grace! They are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. [NOTE: In fewer lists located were the following gifts; prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion.]
8th day Jan. 1 – Eight maids a milking – Being a milkmaid (at the time the poem was written) was the lowest rung of societal status. Like the shepherds at Jesus’ birth. The lesson taught is that Jesus cared as much about them as any with “royal” blood and to the unexpected (true) worth of all people, especially when enduring difficulty for following Him. Jesus expresses who is “blessed” and why through The Beatitudes Matthew 5:3-10:
(1) “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
(2) Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
(3) Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
(4) Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
(5) Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
(6) Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
(7) Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
(8) Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
9th day Jan. 2 – Nine Ladies Dancing – Most commonly representing The Fruit of the Spirit, nine parts that make up ONE fruit; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. [Note: I saw in far fewer lists that they used this symbol to represent Nine Choirs of Angels.]
10th day Jan. 3 – Ten Lords a-Leaping – Lords (at the time of the writing) were judges tending to the law. This represents The Ten Commandments.
11th day Jan. 4 – Eleven Pipers Piping – If pipers have to pipe, preachers and teachers have to preach and teach. We normally talk about the 12 disciples. But when Judas betrayed Jesus and committed suicide, 11 of the original 12 remain to carry out the gospel message. I’m sure that this lesson was intended to explain Judas’ fate and would likely (during the teaching time in The Twelvetide) it would be further explained that Matthias later became the new 12th disciple.
12th day Jan. 5 – Twelve Drummers Drumming – The last gift given is what we believe as Christians. The Apostles’ Creed has 12 points of doctrine.
(1) I believe in God, the Father Almighty,maker of heaven and earth;
(2) And in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord;
(3) who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,born of the Virgin Mary,
(4) suffered under Pontius Pilate,was crucified, dead, and buried;
(5) He descended into hell; the third day he rose from the dead;
(6) he ascended into heaven,and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
(7) from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
(8) I believe in the Holy Spirit,the holy universal church,
(9) the communion of saints,
(10) the forgiveness of sins,
(11) the resurrection of the body,
(12) and the life everlasting. Amen.
The earliest print I could locate online for the Twelve Days of Christmas is shown below. Remember that in those days “f” was “s”, and that will assist you in your reading. 🙂
It’s not uncommon for us to sing songs that say one thing but mean another, we have lots of songs we can think of that do for many different reasons, some safety as the topic sung about in public could result in serious punishment and others just because it’s silly. When you know such as song and what it is about the “knowing” makes you feel part of something special. That’s how we should view The 12 Days of Christmas. Sharing what it’s all means with another brings them into the fold with deeper understanding of their faith. Which was the point.
The best part is, once you understand what the symbols mean you have less trouble remembering verses in order because you are in the “know”! Researching this lesson/poem/song was great fun and maybe you’ll be inspired to do the same and find information I did not. If you do, I’d love to hear from you!
The song and symbols lead to the Feast of Epiphany which we will talk about Sunday (January 2, 2022) when we celebrate the revelation that Christ is the light of the world! The Twelvetide, and Twelve Days of Christmas symbols, help us to reflect on Christ’s place in our life. Those seeking to find what Jesus means to them and means for the world are like the Magi, who we will talk about Sunday. They heard the prophecies about the Messiah. They read the signs and saw the star and were compelled to see if the prophecy had come to fruition! And were they ever glad they did. 🙂
This week, I encourage you to take some time to think about the symbols each day as we make our way to the 12th day of Christmas. May God richly bless you this Twelvetide and in the New Year!
With hands to the plow,