The 12 days of Christmas

by Veronica

"The Twelve Days of Christmas" is a well known Christmas Carol. Was it a rhyme written for children? Was it intended to have some secret Catholic meaning for those persecuted?

"The Twelve Days of Christmas" is a English Christmas carol with some very grand presents given on each of the twelve days of Christmas.

Published in 1780 it is thought to have originated as a children's rhyme. The tune comes from a 1909 arrangement by English composer Frederic Austin, who added and changed some verses and wording, most noticeable the inclusion of the word "on".

12 days
12 days

The words

On the First day of Christmas my true love sent to me
 a partridge in a pear tree.

On the Second day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Two turtle doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.

On the Third day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Three French hens
Two Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.


The subsequent verses are

4 Calling birds

5 Gold rings

6 Geese a laying

7 swans a swimming

8 maids a milking

 9 ladies dancing

10 lords a leaping

11 pipers piping

12 drummers Drumming

Mirth without mischief
Mirth without mischief

The chant was first written down in approx. 1780 and written down as King Pepin's Ball .

Many people believe it was written as a catholic worship song in England while the Catholics were persecuted and anyone who was Catholic would be executed in the most dreadful manner.

I find this unlikely as the Church of England holds very similar beliefs to Roman Catholicism. The song may well have been used by Catholics as a sign of secret defiance. The beliefs in reading the Bible and such things as faith, hope and charity are not exclusively Catholic so there would be no need for there to be a secret Catholic meaning.

The gifts are reputed to have hidden meanings about the the faith.


Here are the supposed meanings.

The "true love"   refers to God . The "me" refers to every baptized person. The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ who died on a tree.


12 days
12 days

2 Turtle Doves  The Old and New Testament
3 French Hens  Faith, Hope and Charity
4 Calling Birds  the Four Gospels 
5 Golden Rings  The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", also called the book of Moses
6 Geese A-laying  the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking  the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing  the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping  the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping  the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming  the twelve apostles


The executions for being Catholic were few and far between in England by the 1780's when the words were published . Consequently I find the idea that it was a secret Catholic chant unlikely unless of course it is an adaptation of an earlier chant used for such a thing.

You can make up your own mind.



Updated: 12/11/2015, Veronica
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Veronica on 07/14/2017


No we have no Christmas myths and legends in Uk as far as I know. There may have been some centuries ago but when the Brits executed and beheaded their king Charles 11 in 1649 , the new British Republican government banned by law all observances of Christmas including eating our traditional minced pies and giving gifts. Some things recover but others die out quite quickly.

DerdriuMarriner on 07/13/2017

Veronica, The 12 days always make me think of Italy's legend of old Bufana who was too busy making her house and yard the cleanest in the village to meet the Magi. Is there any similar legend in the U.K.?

Veronica on 12/14/2015

Yes I agree totally. But I am not going to deny the possibility that it is true.

It has been an amazing discussion and I thank all participants hugely for your thoughts and opinions.

Your idea of the "more obscure fashion" could well be at the back of it .

Mira on 12/14/2015

I have to say that to me those connections seem rather feeble but maybe that's how they worked, in a more obscure fashion.

Veronica on 12/14/2015

My personal feelings are that Catholic connections have been added to the song to give it a religious rather than secular meaning at Christmas.

Mira on 12/14/2015

I read both the article and the comments, and it was all very interesting :)

frankbeswick on 12/14/2015

Only the seven sacraments suggest Catholic origins, as Protestantism only accepts two sacraments.

Veronica on 12/14/2015

Legally yes, only given by the crown but anyone could seize land and just declare himself a Prince.

Hey I may do that myself , Princess Veronica of Cheadle Hulme

Veronica on 12/14/2015

I do think keeping old laws is problematic and I think they should be overturned to keep the statute book workable.

Veronica on 12/14/2015


I agree that it was not in opposition to religion. The faith beliefs are too close.

It makes for a fascinating discussion though as you see.

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