The Irish Connection to the Twelve Days of Christmas
Submitted by Kat Behling
Ask anyone young or old to list their top five Christmas carols and you’ll likely get a multitude of responses ranging from traditional to folk to country to pop. But did you know that the Irish may be able to stake claim to one of the most known and much-loved holiday carols? Some believe the “Twelve Days of Christmas” is a centuries-old remnant from a time when being a Catholic in Ireland or England meant fear of imprisonment – or worse yet, punishment by death.
Hidden Meanings or Children’s Rhyme?
Although controversy surrounds the exact origins – and even the interpretation – of the silly lyrics, one popular theory has its roots planted in Irish Catholic dogma. It is thought that the song itself contains hidden metaphors linked to specific teachings of the church. Written during a time in Irish history when it was a crime to practice Catholicism in public or in private, The “Twelve Days of Christmas” served as a “catechism song,” helping young Catholics learn the fundamentals of their faith without fear of retaliation. Each so-called “gift” mentioned represents a significant teaching of the bible. The “true love” alluded to in the song is not necessarily referring to an “earthly” suitor, but to God himself. And the “me” who receives the “gifts” represents every baptized follower of the church.
Here, in order, are the child-like verses and their religious interpretations that supposedly kept alive the teachings of the Catholic faith:
“On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me…”
1st Day: “A partridge in a pear tree” – The “partridge” is symbolically Jesus Christ; the “tree” is the cross; however, the tree is also interpreted as the fall of grace through Adam and Eve.
2nd Day: “Two turtle doves” – refers to the Old and New Testaments
3rd Day: “Three French hens” – the three gifts of the Holy Spirit (faith, hope and love)
4th Day: “Four calling birds” – the four gospels or Evangelists
5th Day: “Five golden rings” – the first five books of the Old Testament
6th Day: “Six geese a-laying” – the six days of creation
7th Day: “Seven swans a-swimming” – refers to the seven Sacraments
8th Day: “Eight maids a-milking” – the eight Beatitudes
9th Day: “Nine ladies dancing” – the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control)
10th Day: “Ten lords a-leaping” – represents the Ten Commandments
11th Day: “Eleven pipers piping” – the eleven faithful apostles
12th Day: “Twelve drummers drumming” – the twelve points of belief expressed in the Apostles’ Creed