I’m sure you’ve enjoyed singing the 12 Days of Christmas, with its imagery of interesting people and animals. While most folks consider it a nonsensical sort of song, it has been suggested that it is a secretly coded song of Christian instruction.
Here’s the thought line: during the 16th century there was a lot of fighting over religion at various times in England, France, and other countries, and usually the division was Catholic versus Protestant. So there was a time when Roman Catholics in England were not permitted to practice their faith openly. And so it was thought that the carol Twelve Days was created to help Catholic children learn church doctrine. “My true love” mentioned in the song refers to God Himself, and the “me” refers to those who are of the Christian faith. So here is the song and its possible decoding:
A partridge in a pear tree: The partridge is Jesus Christ, symbolically presented as a mother bird defending her helpless nestlings. It recalls the expression of Christ’s sadness over the fate of Jerusalem: “How often would I have sheltered you under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but you would not have it so…” (Luke 12:34).
Two Turtle Doves: Represents the Old and New Testaments that bear witness to all that God has done.
Three French Hens: These are the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love (1 Chor. 13:13).
Four Calling Birds: This is the four Gospels that proclaim the Good News
Five Gold Rings: this is the first five books of the Old Testament, referred to as the Pentateuch. They give the history of humanities fall and God’s response of grace.
Six Geese A-laying: These are the six days of creation that confess God as Creator
Seven Swans A-swimming: These are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion (Romans 12:6-8)
Eight Maids A-milking: These are the eight Beatitudes found in Matthew 5; blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, etc.
Nine Ladies Dancing: These are the nine fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22)
Ten Lords A-leaping: the Ten Commandments
Eleven Pipers Piping: this represents the 11 faithful Apostles, minus Judas Iscariot.
Twelve Drummers Drumming: These are the twelve points of what is called the “Apostles’ Creed”, an early statement of Christian beliefs, still widely used by several denominations. It states things like belief in God, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, etc.
So is it a secret Christian code or just a silly song? To be honest there is little hard evidence either way. But I like to think of this one as in the “lack of evidence is not evidence of absence” category. Considering what Christmas represents, historical accuracy is not really the point. The song can remind us of God’s love and grace, which is what Christmas is really about, is it not?