Twelve drummers? Ten leaping lords? Two turtle doves?
Chances are, the gifts in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” are
not high on anyone’s Christmas list this year. In fact, it’s hard to imagine they
were ever popular presents.
“It’s not a literal song,” said Mickey Mullany, a
professional caroler in Baltimore who admits to sometimes forgetting parts of
the famously long lyrics. “If it was a literal song, it would be monstrous.”
Indeed, in the NBC sitcom “The Office,” a salesman attempts
to kindle romance with a co-worker by sending her presents from “The Twelve Days.”
After her cat kills the turtledoves and the French hens nest in her hair, the
co-worker begs him to please, stop.
“Is it my fault the first eight days are basically 30 birds?”
the lovesick salesman protests.
Given their unsuitability as gifts, how did dancing ladies,
piping pipers, and a bevy of birds become part of one of the season’s best-known
carols? What, if anything, do they symbolize?
It depends on whom you ask.
The song has French origins, and was published in an English
children’s book called Mirth without Mischief around 1780. Most people believe
it began as a memory game sung at Twelfth Night parties. The 12 days of
Christmas in Western Christianity refer to the time between Christ’s birth on
Dec. 25 and the arrival of the Magi to honor the newborn, known as Epiphany, on
In recent times, the song has been searched for coded
references to Catholic doctrine, ancient Egyptian holidays, Roman myths, and
the menu at medieval feasts. It has even become an annual index of economic inflation.
Purchasing all the gifts from “Twelve Days” would cost about $23,400, an
increase of more than 9 percent from last year, PNC Financial Services Group
announced last month.
In the 1990s, a story began floating around the Internet
that “The Twelve Days” was used as a secret catechism by Catholics persecuted after
the Reformation in England. The “true love” who offers the gifts refers to God,
according to this theory. The partridge is Jesus, the two turtle doves are the
Old and New Testaments, the three French hens represent the virtues of faith,
hope and charity, and so on.
But California folklorists who run Snopes.com, an urban
legend site, dispute the catechism tale. None of the tenets supposedly encoded
in the song were points of conflict between Anglicans and Catholics, the site
notes, so there would have been no reason to keep them secret. Also, it’s
impractical to rely on a seasonal song to teach the faith, the folklorists
said. What did persecuted Catholics do for the rest of the year?
William Studwell, who was considered the dean of Christmas
carol scholarship before he died last August, was also skeptical.
“If there was such a catechism device, a secret code, it was
derived from the original secular song,” he said in a 2008 interview with Religion
News Service. “It’s a derivative, not the source.”
“The song can still be used as an educational or devotional
tool by using the symbols as a mnemonic device,” said Dennis Bratcher, a Church
of the Nazarene minister and director of the Christian Resource Institute. “Many
Christians today hear the song in those terms anyway, regardless of its
That’s how “The Twelve Days” sounds to Ace Collins, an
evangelical author of numerous books about Christmas carols.
On the surface, the carol seems as nonsensical as “Grandma
Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” Collins said. But a deeper meaning lies below the silly
lyrics, he said, comparing the carol to “Roll, Jordan, Roll” the gospel song
that was both biblical and a code for black slaves seeking to escape the South.
“Whether it was written that way, or adapted that way,
either way it allows people to consider things they don’t normally think about,”
Collins said of the carol, “and can possibly become a road that leads people to
a greater understanding of Christ.”
Leigh Grant, who wrote and illustrated a children’s book
about “The Twelve Days,” said the gifts are popular parts of medieval feasts,
often held during Twelfth Night celebrations. The birds were eaten while the pipers,
drummers, and lords entertained the guests. The five golden rings in the song
refer not to jewelry, but to ring-necked pheasants.
But the song is also rife with symbolism, Grant said.
Partridges and pears, for instance, were considered emblems
of fertility during the Renaissance, she said. Likewise, geese and swans were
seen as intermediaries between the earth and the sky, and thus humans and
“I’ve heard a lot of theories about this song,” Grant said, “and I don’t
know if any of them are true. But what often happens to songs is that people
change them, and so does the meaning people find in them.”