Of all the gifts given in “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” five involve nothing but poultry, another poultry in a pear tree, five others gifts of people, and one gift of five golden rings—not counting the multiples of these gifts along the trek from Christmas Day to the Feast of the Epiphany. Numerous web sites offer interpretations ranging from the interesting to the silly, usually promoting some version of this song as a secret Catholic code to promote that faith during 16th-17th century English persecution—and all with no evidence. Even if true, though, it’s an odd set of symbols.
Here’s a rough consensus:
Partridge in a pear tree—Jesus protecting the faithful, as a mother bird feigning injury to lure away predators. The pear tree harks back to the garden of Eden. That’s what the web sites claim, anyway.
Two turtle doves—the Old and New Testament. Also known as the mourning dove in the Western hemisphere. Interesting.
Three French hens—faith, hope, and love. Especially interesting, since I learned these in childhood as faith, hope and charity. Values change, it seems.
Four calling birds—the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Just repeating what I read.
Five golden rings--the first five books of the Old Testament (the Torah/the Pentateuch—the Books of Moses). Yes, I realize this repeats in part the turtle dove point.
Six geese a-laying—the six days of creation. Yes, I know creation had seven days, including a day of rest. If you haven’t yet thought these interpretations are quite contrived, perhaps you’re now beginning to see my point. On the other hand, this introduces the idea of reproduction—or at least breakfast.
Seven swans a-swimming—the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, as described by Paul. I can at least see why we might compare these to swans. Why they have to be swimming, I can’t imagine.
Eight maids a-milking—the Beatitudes (Blessed are the…etc…). Here’s the interesting shift---we move from poultry to people. Why? Further, back to the geese, these women are producing. But what? No mention of what they’re milking—cows? goats? sheep? anything? Are they then wet nurses? They wouldn’t be “maids” then (ruling out immaculate conceptions, of course).
Nine ladies dancing—the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit. Again, quite contrived—we’re really jumping around here. But note the clear delineation—these are ladies, not maids. Does this mean they’re upper class (but still given as gifts, possessions)? Or married? If so, potential production again…
Ten lords a-leaping—the Ten Commandments. Ever go to two churches of different faiths? As a former church musician, I have, and guess what—THE Ten Commandments change depending on where you are, in wording, order, and substance. Moses most be going nuts. Apparently God changes his mind a lot. No wonder we got away from engraving those things in stone. And why “lords a-leaping"? Got me there.
Eleven pipers piping—the eleven faithful Apostles, not counting Judas Iscariot. I told you this was contrived.
Twelve drummers drumming—depends on what you read. Twelve tribes of Israel? Twelve Apostles (here they are again)? Some say the Twelve points of the Apostles’ Creed (those guys are ubiquitous!).
One web site reports no “accurate evidence” supports this—relying, I guess, on “inaccurate evidence” instead. Another site admits no evidence supports the idea that the song is a secret message of faith, but goes on to note “no substantive evidence disproves it either.” By that “logic,” as no substantive evidence disproves the idea that Martians planted the song as a secret manifesto to their eventual conquest of Earth, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility. Seems to me a secret song about Christianity probably wouldn’t start it with “On the first day of Christmas.” But that’s just me.
So what do we have here?
It’s a hell of gift giving binge—184 poultry, 140 people, 40 gold rings, and 12 fruit trees. If all of those are gifts in the sense of “keepers,” then we have a problem. How will we support them? Eleven and two-thirds people have to share one pear tree. Each person can have 1.314 birds—wait a minute. Isn’t that pi? Is this then some secret mathematical puzzle? Hmmm. Those people need clothing and housing in addition to food, but those gold rings amount to only 0.2857 rings per person, so I predict economic disaster.
Strangely ironic, isn’t it? All those lavish gifts to celebrate the birth of the king in a stable, whose “kingdom is not of this world.” Of course, at the Epiphany, the Wise Men—usually counted as three, although Christian scripture only notes three gifts—brought the precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The gold probably came in handy, and perhaps the frankincense and myrrh helped the stable smell better, but as myrrh should be kept away from children, they were really taking a chance. Herod’s influence?
Doesn’t add up. Let’s see what we do have.
The golden rings are clearly a turning point. Until then, we just have poultry milling about. The rings, however, usher in a flurry of activity. “Calling birds” may be ambiguous, but make no mistake about geese a-laying! Those geese are straining to produce those eggs. Those a-swimming swans are doing laps. Those a-milking maids are filling pail after pail, those lords and ladies a-kicking up their heels something fierce, and those pipers and drummers a-making a racket clearly audible from Scotland.
I propose this is simply a marriage, if a lavish one. After a bit of poultry, we award every finger of the hand a wedding ring—overkill, to be sure. But from that moment proceeds a flurry of activity, including dairy products, dancers, and musicians. Many people have argued that this marriage is Jesus with the faithful, but if so, the choice of symbols is just weird. Come on. It’s a children’s song. After all, the Brits also celebrated Twelfth Night by baking a cake with a hidden bean and a pea to determine the “King of the Bean” and his queen. Anyone want to take a whack at the religious message there?
But for those who need a religious allegory, here’s my suggestion—consider the Parable of the Ten Virgins in Matthew 25:1-13. Five wise virgins are ready for the arrival of the bridegroom—the manifestation of Jesus as God incarnate at the Epiphany? Fits in nicely with the five golden (wedding?) rings, and five of the gifts represent classes and genders of people. Excluding the partridge in the pear tree, presumably Jesus the bridegroom, that leaves five gifts of poultry—the five foolish virgins. As long as we’re contriving, let’s not forget that this is the darkest time of the year, a festival of light, and the parable is, after all, about saving oil for the lamps. The Maccabees might have something to say about that too.
I once heard a college student expound at length how Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” was that group’s reaching out and reaffirmation of their Christian faith. Had this student attempted a tad of research, he might have discovered lead singer Robert Plant’s explanation that it "was some cynical aside about a woman getting everything she wanted all the time without giving back any thought or consideration. The first line begins with that cynical sweep of the hand...and it softened up after that. I think it was the Moroccan dope!"
The silly goose.