Friday, December 28, 2007

"The Twelve Days of Christmas" Is a Secret Catholic Catechism

Friday's Urban Legend: FALSE

Today is the fourth day of Christmas (four calling birds). There's a persistent urban legend floating around the internet that the popular song "Twelve Days of Christmas" is actually a secret message about Christianity, made up by persecuted Roman Catholics in England. The story even made it into our local paper (Toronto Star) a few days ago, albeit with a hint that it might not be true.

Here's the 1998 version of the email message.
You're all familiar with the Christmas song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" I think. To most it's a delightful nonsense rhyme set to music. But it had a quite serious purpose when it was written.

It is a good deal more than just a repetitious melody with pretty phrases and a list of strange gifts.

Catholics in England during the period 1558 to 1829, when Parliament finally emancipated Catholics in England, were prohibited from ANY practice of their faith by law - private OR public. It was a crime to BE a Catholic.

"The Twelve Days of Christmas" was written in England as one of the "catechism songs" to help young Catholics learn the tenets of their faith - a memory aid, when to be caught with anything in writing indicating adherence to the Catholic faith could not only get you imprisoned, it could get you hanged, or shortened by a head - or hanged, drawn and quartered, a rather peculiar and ghastly punishment I'm not aware was ever practiced anywhere else. Hanging, drawing and quartering involved hanging a person by the neck until they had almost, but not quite, suffocated to death; then the party was taken down from the gallows, and disembowelled while still alive; and while the entrails were still lying on the street, where the executioners stomped all over them, the victim was tied to four large farm horses, and literally torn into five parts - one to each limb and the remaining torso.

The songs gifts are hidden meanings to the teachings of the faith. The "true love" mentioned in the song doesn't refer to an earthly suitor, it refers to God Himself. The "me" who receives the presents refers to every baptized person. The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge which feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings, much in memory of the expression of Christ's sadness over the fate of Jerusalem: "Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered thee under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but thou wouldst not have it so..."

The other symbols mean the following:

2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed is all over this one [The Twelve Days of Christmas].
There is no substantive evidence to demonstrate that the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was created or used as a secret means of preserving tenets of the Catholic faith, or that this claim is anything but a fanciful modern day speculation, similar to the many apocryphal "hidden meanings" of various nursery rhymes. Moreover, several flaws in the explanation argue compellingly against it:
What's interesting about the article is that it explores the real origins of the song and reveals some interesting facts about the corrupted English version.
What we do know is that the twelve days of Christmas in the song are the twelve days between the birth of Christ (Christmas, December 25) and the coming of the Magi (Epiphany, January 6). Although the specific origins of the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas" are not known, it possibly began as a Twelfth Night "memory-and-forfeits" game in which the leader recited a verse, each of the players repeated the verse, the leader added another verse, and so on until one of the players made a mistake, with the player who erred having to pay a penalty, such as a offering up a kiss or a sweet. This is how the song was presented in its earliest known printed version, in the 1780 children's book Mirth Without Mischief. (The song is apparently much older than this printed version, but we do not currently know how much older.) Textual evidence indicates that the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was not English in origin, but French. Three French versions of the song are known, and items mentioned in the song itself (the partridge, for example, which was not introduced to England from France until the late 1770s) are indicative of a French origin.
In the original version, the gift on the fourth day was "colly" birds, not "calling" birds. Apparently, "colly" meant black as coal and a "colly bird" was a blackbird. The five "golden rings" refers to ring-necked pheasants. Thus, the first seven gifts are all birds.

[Image Credit:]


  1. I wonder why (and this is not related to this post only) a blog which aims to be about "science" (darwinism) spends so much time attacking Christianity. What would Darwinistt Ken Miller say?

  2. Interesting post. Despite the large 'false' stamped on the top of the Snopes page, all it really debunks is the notion that the song was created by Christians who could not openly practice their faith (in particular persecuted Catholics in England) and not any potential religious origins when it was written in France.

    While its use as a memory aid for various aspects of Christian faith seems unlikely for the reasons listed at Snopes, they explicitly state "the specific origins of the song 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' are not known" (and, in fact, the only 'known' aspect of the content of the song, they state, is that the 12 days are the period between the birth of Christ and the Epiphany).

    I'm not saying that the 7 swans a-swimming are necessarily the 7 sacraments but to come to the conlusion that it is a song with secular origins isn't supported by the evidence presented at Snopes (nor is a religious origin for each 'gift).

  3. What about Marduk?

    See Wikipedia

    Zagmuk is a Mesopotamian festival celebrated around the vernal equinox, which literally means "beginning of the year". It celebrates the triumph of Marduk, the patron deity of Babylon, over the forces of chaos, symbolized in later times by Tiamet. The battle between Marduk and chaos lasts 12 days, as does the festival of Zagmuk. In Uruk the festival was associated with the god An, the Sumerian god of the night sky. Both are essentially equivalent in all respects to the Akkadian "akitu" festival. In some variations, Marduk is slain by Tiamet and resurrected on the vernal equinox.[1]

    Lots of pagan ideas were copied into Christian legends.

  4. Hanging, drawing and quartering was unpleasant enough without your correspondent's embellishments. The accounts of priests' execution from here don't tell of stomping or horses. The entrails were thrown in a brazier or cauldron, the head and limbs (quarters) were hacked off, no horses. (A friend has in her curatorial care an eyeball that flew out of a priest's head during his execution: it is in a silver reliquary made up to look like an eye-socket.)

    While it might have been illegal to be a Catholic until 1829, Catholism was tolerate long before that.

    From up here (Yorkshire, northern England where along with Lancashire the recusant Catholics kept the old faith alive in the face of the Reformation) the origins of the song in France doesn't necessarily negate it being used as a cryptic Catholic crib sheet. Most of the English priests, especially the Jesuits, were trained in France or Belgium before returning to England. They would have learned French language, prayers and hymns.

    The reformation did a very thorough job oppressing northern England but the recusant Catholics were very stubborn and skillful at subterfuge: it is quite possible that a French song was co-opted.

  5. No, what negates it is that it's, you know, a made-up story for which there is zero evidence. I hope this makes it clearer for you.

  6. I don't know about the twelve days song, but the 12 days of xmas come from the European pagan festival of the 12 days of Yule. Anyhow, here is a modern version of the song.

    For the Canadians, a complaints choir. The original Helsinki one is the best, but this isn't bad.

  7. It almost sounds like someone's gotten "Twelve Days" mixed up with "Green Grow the Rushes-O".

  8. the victim was tied to four large farm horses, and literally torn into five parts - one to each limb and the remaining torso.

    This bit fails a basic physics test. Assuming this was ever done, in England or elsewhere, the victim would end up in four pieces, not five - the whole body would not come apart all at once, perfectly synchronously, so what would happen is the last limb wouldn't separate from the torso, and you'd get (a very messy) three amputated limbs plus one still attached to the body.

    How does the editing process at work? Is there peer-review?

  9. At least one saint (St Hypollitus, I think) 'gained his crown' (as marytrdom was hilariously called) by being torn apart by horses.

    Steve, a lot of English written sources from the refomation were destroyed either deliberately when the monasteries and Catholic homes were sacked or by neglect and the passage of time. That doesn't mean that some of the oral accounts or second hand reports are completely invalid.