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Controversy over “The 12 Days of Christmas”?


The Internet can give you information or misinformation. It’s up to you to read both sides and decide for yourself. Take the popular Christmas song, “The 12 Days of Christmas,” for example.

First, you need to understand that most authorities agree that the actual 12 days of Christmas begin on Christmas Day or the following day, December 26, and end on Epiphany, January 6, the day reputed to be the time when the Three Kings (or Magi) presented their gifts to the Christ Child.

After that, the battle lines are drawn as to the actual meaning of the words to the song, “The 12 Days of Christmas.”

One version is that this was a “memory-and-forfeit” game sing by British children. The game was simple. A leader sang a verse and then added the next set of gifts in the next verse; for example, “Two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.” If a person was unable to remember all of the previous verses, one gave up either a kiss (in some versions) or a piece of candy (in others). This game was referenced by J.O. Halliwell in The Nursery Rhymes of England published in 1842. It was also described in detail by Thomas Hughes’ 1862 novel The Ashen Faggot: A Tale of Christmas.

On the other hand, the theory that it originated as an “underground catechism song” for oppressed Catholics, is quite modern. It was first proposed by Canadian English teacher and part-time hymnologist Hugh D. McKellar in an article entitled “How to Decode the Twelve Days of Christmas,” published in 1979. McKellar expanded on the idea in a monograph for the scholarly journal, The Hymn, in 1994.

This version proclaims, based on “some old correspondence between French Jesuits and British Jesuits,” that because Catholicism was outlawed in England between 1558 and 1829 (at some times even punishable by death), the song was used to teach the catechism for Catholics to learn about their faith in secret.

Here is this interpretation of the lyrics:

  • A partridge in a pear tree: Jesus Christ
  • Two turtle doves: The Old and New Testaments of the Bible
  • Three French hens: the three virtues of faith, hope and charity; or God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit; or gold, frankincense and myrrh, the three gifts brought to Jesus by the Magi
  • Four calling (mistake for “colly” or “collie” meaning “coal black”) birds: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, the four Gospels of the Bible
  • Five golden rings: the Torah, the books of Moses, or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy)
  • Six geese a-laying: six days of creation before God’s rest on the seventh day
  • Seven swans a-swimming: Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit or the seven sacraments (wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, fear of the Lord)
  • Eight maids a-milking: the eight Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount (Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth; Blessed are they who mourn for they shall be comforted; Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be filled; Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy; Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God; Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God; Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake for theirs is the kingdom of God)
  • Nine ladies dancing: nine choirs of angels or nine fruits of the Holy Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control)
  • Ten lords a-leaping: the Ten Commandments {1) You shall have no other gods before me; 2) Do not make an idol; 3) Do not take God’s name in vain; 4) Remember the Sabbath Day; 5) Honor your father and mother; 6) Do not murder; 7) Do not commit adultery; 8) Do not steal; 9) Do not bear false witness; 10) Do not covet}
  • Eleven pipers piping: the eleven faithful disciples of Jesus (Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James bar Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, Judas bar James) {Judas Iscariot, of course, was omitted from the original twelve}
  • Twelve drummers drumming: twelve points of belief in the Apostles’ Creed:
    1. I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth,
    2. and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
    3. Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost (or Spirit), born of the virgin Mary,
    4. suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried;
    5. { NOTE: This next line is not used in all churches, nor was it in the explanation of this line of the song.} He descended into hell.
    6. The third day He arose again from the dead;
    7. He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
    8. from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
    9. I believe in the Holy Ghost (or Spirit);
    10. the holy catholic church; the communion of saints;
    11. the forgiveness of sins;
    12. the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting

This version has been soundly denounced on and other Internet venues such as, etc. Criticisms range from the fact that the original documents confirming this were lost due to a plumbing overflow to the fact that they surfaced only in the 1990s to the additional fact that both the Anglican and Catholic Churches adhere to these same Christian principles. (Just check out these websites if you want specifics.)

It is for the reader to decide which version has validity.

Furthermore, someone else has posted a list of the exact number of gifts one would receive from one’s lover if all these items were delivered day after day. It comes to a mere 364! Comedians have portrayed this menagerie much to the delight of their audiences as all these animals take over the unsuspecting recipient’s home.

The latest calculation of what these items would cost is $96,824, an increase of 10.8 percent over last year, according to the annual Christmas Price Index compiled by PNC Wealth Management.

Personally, if I never heard this song again, I would not complain!

About Sue Freeman Culverhouse

    Sue Freeman Culverhouse

    Author of Tennessee Literary Luminaries: From Cormac McCarthy to Robert Penn Warren (The History Press, 2013) Sue Freeman Culverhouse has been a freelance writer for the past 36 years. Beginning in 1976, she published magazines articles in Americana, Historic Preservation, American Horticulturist, Flower and Garden, The Albemarle Magazine, and many others. Sue is the winner of two Virginia Press Awards in writing.

    She moved to Springfield, Tennessee in 2003 with her sculptor husband, Bill a retired attorney. Sue has one daughter,  Susan Leigh Miller who teaches poetry and creative writing at Rutgers University.

    Sue teaches music and writing at Watauga Elementary School in Ridgetop, Tennessee to approximately 500 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. She also publishes a literary magazine each year; all work in the magazine is written and illustrated by the students.

    Sue writes “Uncommon Sense,” a column in the Robertson County Times, which also appears on Clarksville Online. She is the author of “Seven keys to a sucessful life”, which is  available on and; this is a self-help book for all ages.

    Web Site:




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