The Twelve Days of Christmas, also known as “Twelvetide,” is the period in which we celebrate the Birth of Christ. Historically and liturgically, Twelvetide was initiated at one of the great councils of the church, the Council of Tours. There were actually five Councils of Tours convened by Emperor Charlemagne in Tours, France, calling together Bishops and theologians to discuss church order. The Council of 567 proclaimed “the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany (traditionally 6 January) as a sacred and festive season, and established the duty of Advent fasting in preparation for the feast." This decision was made, in part, based on the effort to align the Gregorian and Julian calendars concurrently being used by the eastern and the western churches.
The medieval Twelvetide was a time of joy and celebration. With Christmas as the anchor, the twelve days were filled with feasts of the eastern and western churches’ specific saints and events. These feasts were a reminder of God’s bountiful love for us and the ability of humankind to respond in dedication and devotion to God. They included the feasts of Saint Stephen, Saint John the Apostle, Saint Sylvester, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Saint Basil the Great; the Circumcision of Christ (or the Feast of Mary); and the Memorial of the Holy Name of Jesus. If you were worried about putting a few pounds at Uncle Merv’s on Christmas day—imagine this dozen opportunities to over-indulge! Instead, the “feast” was every bit as much about spiritual nourishment and theological significance: each day held a special focus and a unique opportunity to show devotion to God and each other in Jesus’ name.
Even as Christmas, an established Christian celebration, has been usurped by our contemporary culture, so too were the celebrations of Twelvetide. The celebration of the twelfth day, for instance—a celebration of the proclamation of the Christian faith through the Apostles’ Creed (more on that in a moment)—became simply a time to party and let loose. Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night is a much beloved comedy of role reversals and breaking rules thought to be inspired by the party atmosphere of what the playwright knew well in his time: the twelfth night.
In an effort to reclaim and observe our Christian history and heritage of this period of time, we need look no further than one of our beloved Christmas songs. Thought to be a secular, cutesy love song, The Twelve Days of Christmas was actually written by priests for Catechism. In Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas1, celebrated author Ace Collins details the song’s history:
Originally a poem written by Catholic clerics, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" song was transformed into a carol at a time when celebrating the twelve days of Christmas was one of the most important holiday customs. By understanding the meaning the clerics chose the twelve days as wrapping for their poem, the full impact of the tradition of the twelve days of Christmas can be understood.
Perhaps this year we can reclaim the lost meaning. As you read more of Collins’ wonderful explanation of the true meaning of this song, I pray you are blessed with joy in the revelation and encouraged to teach others of its origin and meaning.
On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... a partridge in a pear tree.
The partridge in a pear tree represents Jesus, the Son of God, whose birthday we celebrate on the first day of Christmas. Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge, the only bird that will die to protect its young.
On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... two turtledoves.
These twin birds represent the Old and New Testaments. So, in this gift, the singer finds the complete story of Judeo-Christian faith and God’s plan for the world. The doves are the biblical roadmap that is available to everyone.
On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... three French hens.
These birds represent faith, hope, and love. This gift hearkens back to 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter written by the apostle Paul.
On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... four calling birds.
One of the easiest facets of the song’s code to figure out, these fowl are the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... five gold rings.
The gift of the rings represents the first five books of the Old Testament, known as the Torah or the Pentateuch.
On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... six geese a-laying.
These lyrics can be traced back to the first story found in the Bible. Each egg is a day in creation, a time when the world was “hatched” or formed by God.
On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me... seven swans a-swimming.
It would take someone quite familiar with the Bible to identify this gift. Hidden in the code are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion. As swans are one of the most beautiful and graceful creatures on earth, they would seem to be a perfect symbol for spiritual gifts.
On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... eight maids a-milking.
As Christ came to save even the lowest of the low, this gift represents the ones who would receive his word and accept his grace. Being a milkmaid was about the worst job one could have in England during this period; this code conveyed that Jesus cared as much about servants as he did those of royal blood. The eight who were blessed included the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... nine ladies dancing.
These nine dancers were really the gifts known as the fruit of the Spirit. The fruits are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
On the tenth day of Christmas my true love gave to me... ten lords a-leaping.
This is probably the easiest gift to understand. As lords were judges and in charge of the law, this code for the Ten Commandments was fairly straightforward to Catholics.
On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... eleven pipers piping.
This is almost a trick question, as most think of the disciples in terms of a dozen. But when Judas betrayed Jesus and committed suicide, there were only eleven men who carried out the gospel message.
On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... twelve drummers drumming.
The final gift is tied directly to the Catholic Church. The drummers are the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.”
Peace on earth, good will towards all!
Father Bill Burk†