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.Snopes.com is all over this one [The Twelve Days of Christmas].
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
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 Snopes.com 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,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.
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.
[Image Credit: Cafepres.com]