Every day, fromDecember 25 to January 6, has traditionally been a part of the Yuletidecelebration. Dedicated to mercy and compassion–in light of the incarnation ofHeaven’s own mercy and compassion–each of those twelve days between Christmasand Epiphany was to be noted by selfless giving and tender charity. In manycultures, gift giving is not concentrated on a single day, but rather, as inthe famous folk song, spread out through the entire season.
In that delightfulold folk song, The Twelve Days ofChristmas, each of the gifts represent some aspect of the blessing ofChrist’s appearing. They portray the abundant life, the riches of the Christianinheritance, and the ultimate promise of heaven. They also depict the essentialcovenantal nature of life lived in Christian community and accountability–butperhaps not as specifically as you may have been led to believe. Thoughtheories vary on the origin of the song (it first appears sometime during theadvent of Protestantism in Tudor England) it is likely an urban legend that itwas intended to be a secret catechism song during those difficult times ofpersecution.
That rather fancifulinterpretation of the song has attached very specific and very dubious meaningsto the symbols: the partridge in a pear tree, for instance, is taken to beChrist, Himself. It is supposed that in the song, He is symbolically presentedas a mother partridge feigning injury to decoy predators from her helplessnestlings–an expression of Christ’s sadness over the fate of Jerusalem:”Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered thee under mywings, as a hen does her chicks, but thou wouldst not have it so.” The twoturtledoves are taken to represent the Old and New Testaments. The three FrenchHens supposedly symbolize faith, hope, and love. The four calling birds aresaid to portray either the four Gospels or the four evangelists. The fivegolden rings are supposed to be the first five books of the Old Testament the”Pentateuch.” The six geese a-laying are said to be the six days ofcreation while the seven swans a-swimming are taken to be the seven gifts ofthe Holy Spirit. The eight maids a-milking are supposed to be the eightbeatitudes while the nine ladies dancing supposedly represent the nine Fruitsof the Holy Spirit. The ten lords a-leaping are naturally taken to mean the TenCommandments. The eleven pipers piping are supposed to be the eleven faithfulapostles and the twelve drummers drumming are either the tribes of Israel, theelders of Revelation, or the points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed.
Most of thesewell-intended interpretations are likely just wishful thinking. For one thing,all of the first seven gifts actually refer to birds of varying types. Thefourth day’s gift, for instance, is four “colly birds,” not four”calling birds” (the word “colly” literally means”black as coal,” and thus “colly birds” would beblackbirds). The “five golden rings” on the fifth day refers not tofive pieces of jewelry, but to five ring-necked birds (such as pheasants).
But, even thoughsymbolic maximalism likely goes too far, it is equally excessive to assume thatthe song is “strictly secular,” as one debunking web site dubbed it.Indeed, secularism in sixteenth century England was about as credible then asan Elvis sighting is today. The answer to overly-anxious allegorical apocryphalismis not the equal and opposite error of overly-anxious rational reductionism.Symbols don’t have to mean everything in order to mean something–nor do theyhave to mean nothing.
Very likely, thisdelightful folk song was just intended to generally and joyously portraythroughout the Yuletide season the abundant Christian life, the riches of theChurch’s covenantal inheritance, and the Gospel’s ultimate promise of heaven.Sing, therefore, with new gusto and zeal. For, “every good and perfectgift comes from above.” Even partridges, pear trees, and leaping lords!