So the tree’s probably starting to wither and you may be packing away those ornaments and stockings. We’re already heading into January 4 … technically, the 10th Day of Christmas. You, of course, remember the old song:


On the twelfth day of Christmas,
my true love gave to me…
12 drummers drumming
11 pipers piping
10 lords a-leaping
9 ladies dancing
8 maids a-milking
7 swans a-swimming
6 geese a-laying
5 golden rings
4 calling birds
3 French hens

2 turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree!

What you may not know is that a controversy is raging over the origin of the lyrics. One explanation that has been widely circulated via the Internet over the past few years purports that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was written in England as a catechism song to help young Catholics learn the basics of their faith, albeit in code, because Catholicism was a forbidden practice in England from 1558 till 1829.

This theory has been widely debunked, even as believers continue to disseminate it as fact. Another theory posits that the song relates to the stocking and running of a country estate. As with many folk songs of distant origin, however, tracking down the original intent/meaning behind the lyrics may prove a futile task.

Catholic Interpretation

The tree itself is the symbol of the fall of the human race through the sin of Adam and Eve. It also is the symbol of humanity’s redemption by Jesus Christ on the tree of the Cross.

The partridge in the pear tree is Christ Jesus upon the cross. In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge because she would feign injury to decoy a predator away from her nestlings, even willing to die for them.

The two turtle doves refer to the Old and New Testaments.

The three French hens stand for faith, hope, and love – the three gifts of the Holy Spirit that abide (1 Corinthians 13).

The four calling birds refer to the four evangelists who wrote the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – which sing the song of salvation through Jesus Christ.

The five golden rings represent the first five books of the Bible, also called the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

The six geese a-laying are the six days of it took for God to create the earth and populate it.

The seven swans a-swimming refer to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.

The eight maids a-milking reminded God’s children of the eight Beatitudes, listed by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted; blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth; blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied; blessed are the merciful, for they shall know mercy; blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God; blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God; and blessed are they who suffer persecution because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The nine ladies dancing represent the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit found in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.

The ten lords a-leaping represents the Ten Commandments: (i) I am the Lord, your God, you shall have no other gods before me. (ii) You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain. (iii) Keep holy the Sabbath day. (iv) Honor your father and your mother. (v) You shall not kill. (vi) You shall not commit adultery. (vii) You shall not steal. (viii) You shall not bear false witness. (ix) You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. (x) You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods.

The eleven pipers piping refers to the 11 faithful apostles (Judas being excluded as the traitor who betrayed Jesus).

The twelve drummers drumming were the 12 points of belief expressed in the Apostles’ Creed: belief in God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, that Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, made man, crucified, died and arose on the third day, that he sits at the right hand of the father and will come again, the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting.

Country Estate Interpretation

The partridge in a pear tree refers to a plot of wooded land suitable for breeding game birds such as partridges and pheasants. It is also suggested that the gift of a pear tree would get a person started on their own orchard – if this gift were indeed given on 12 consecutive days, it would result in a moderate orchard and a foundation flock of partridges.

The two turtle doves, while a classic symbol of love, are also a food item. Many big houses kept dovecotes to breed pigeons for their meat. A male and female turtle dove would certainly have started off someone’s dovecote. If the gift were given on 11 days, it would more than adequately stock the dovecote.

The recipient’s poultry flock is augmented by three French hens, although hopefully one of the birds would actually be a cockerel!

Although the four colley birds is frequently explained as four “coaly” (black) birds, it is just as likely to be calling birds, in keeping with the food theme. A “calling” pheasant (i.e. one trying to attract a mate) is tethered or caged and attracts other birds into the area. Gamekeepers put calling birds – not just pheasants – on land where they want to increase the grouse or pheasant population, e.g. moorland used for game shooting – hence “calling birds” could be a useful gift.

Five gold rings is a debatable one. If taken literally, it might indicate a gift of wealth in the form of jewelry or gold coins. The rings might mean “round pieces,” e.g., coins. This would eventually amount to a small treasure chest of gold, possibly indicating a dowry. It is also suggested that the gold rings refer to yellow rounds of cheeses – not as silly as you might think when you consider that a later gift includes dairy cattle and maids to milk them.

Six geese a-laying would provide not only eggs, but also meat.

The seven swans a-swimming might sound picturesque today, but swans were eaten in the same manner as ducks or geese (and are very similar in flesh). Swans are also a symbol of the gentry (today most are possessions of the crown) and allude to the wealth of the estate – something already suggested if the gold rings are gold coins.

The later gifts almost certainly allude, in part, to the staff needed for running the estate. Consider the eight maids a-milking: the maids need something to milk (i.e., cattle –unless you go for the bawdy interpretation of them as wet nurses, though they would likely then not be described as “maids”).

The nine dancing ladies, 10 leaping lords, 11 pipers and 12 drummers suggest a celebratory feast, possibly the Christmas dinner itself, which would be accompanied by music. Pipes and drums were popular instrumental combinations.

All in all, we have some of the basics for a largely self-sufficient country estate – a considerable staff for the household and grounds, a dairy, poultry, waterfowl, gamebirds, orchard, and possibly a large amount of money in the form of gold coin.

According to a media release from Northern Illinois University, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was named the 2008 “Carol of the Year.” They report in their findings:

Like many older carols, the origins of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” are vague. Some say it was written in France, but Studwell is firmly in the camp of those who trace its roots to England. It was most likely written, he believes, during the period of history known as the Restoration, a brief interlude from about 1660 to 1730, between the Puritan Revolution and the rise of Methodism. It was a period of lightheartedness (relative to the eras it separated, anyway) which would have allowed for the rise of such a frivolous song, Studwell says.

The acclaimed researcher puts little stock in the theory that the carol originated as a code developed by English Catholics to secretly teach their children catechism. The idea was first set forth by the Rev. Harold Stockert in 1969 and has been revived on the Internet in recent years.

OK, so regardless of the origin, we can all agree that the quantities of livestock and servant-types bestowed by my true love in this song start to add up, once you get to the sixth day and beyond. Wayyyyy more than could ever be delivered in a stocking (unless it was in the form of a pop-up book).

The question, then, becomes, “So, how many gifts IS that!?” Believe it or not, math geeks have figured our a formula to determine this number. The following excerpt explains just a bit of it:

Good question, I’m glad you asked! Let’s start by thinking about how many gifts are given on each day. On the first day, the narrator receives one gift: a partridge in a pear tree. On the second day, the narrator receives two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree: 2 + 1 = 3 gifts in total. On the third day, there are 3 + 2 + 1 = 6 gifts, on the fourth day, 4 + 3 + 2 + 1 = 10 gifts, and so on. In general, it’s not hard to see that on the nth day, the narrator receives a number of gifts equal to the sum of all the integers from 1 to n. So the number of gifts the narrator gets on each day are 1, 3, 6, 10, 15, 21, 28, 36, 45, 55, 66, 78.

These numbers are known as triangular numbers, due to the fact that they can be represented pictorially by dots arranged in triangles. Like this:

Triangular numbers

It shouldn’t be too hard to see that the number of dots in the nth triangle above corresponds to the sum of the integers from 1 through n (just count the number of dots in each row). Can you find a pattern and come up with a way to quickly figure out the nth triangular number, without having to add up all the numbers from 1 to n?

Any way you slice it, though, it’s a LOT of people and animals.

So there you have it … an attempt to explain the thoughts and intentions behind “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Enjoy the last few … and beware the steaming piles!