We are all familiar with the carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
We have all smiled indulgently at the extravagance of the lover who showered upon his beloved so many fantastic and inconvenient gifts. Every day of the Christmas season she received a new token of his love, each more fabulous than the last and increasingly numerous, until she was the proud possessor of twenty-three birds, some valuable jewelry, a varied assortment of musicians and entertainers, and eight milkmaids.
But it is more than a rhapsody of strange and delightful nonsense. It is a song of Catholic instruction. Dating back to the 16th or 17th century, it was created as a memory aid to help children learn their Faith. The “true love” is no earthly suitor, but God Himself, Who gives His wondrous gifts to “me,” every baptized person.
On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me,
A partridge in a pear tree…
The partridge is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Who comes to us on the first day of Christmas. He is fittingly represented as a partridge, a bird which will feign injury in order to draw predators to itself and away from its young. By offering Himself on the Cross, “He hath delivered me from the snare of the hunters. He will overshadow thee with His shoulders: and under His wings thou shalt trust.” (Psalms 90:4)
The pear tree is the Cross itself. When King David wished to free his people from the scourge of the Philistines, the Lord told him that the moment would come “when thou shalt hear the sound of one going in the tops of the pear trees, then shalt thou join battle: for then will the Lord go out before thy face to strike the army of the Philistines.” (II Kings 5:24)
On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me,
Two turtle doves…
The two turtle doves represent the Old and New Testaments which look to each other with admiration, and complement one another.
On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me,
Three French hens…
The three French hens symbolize the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity.
On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me,
Four calling birds…
The four calling birds are the four Evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – because they spread everywhere the good news of the Gospel. “Their sound hath gone forth into all the earth: and their words unto the ends of the world.” (Psalms 18:5)
On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me,
Five golden ring…
The Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, is represented by five golden rings. These books tell the history of man from the creation to the time of Moses and the expectation of the Messiah that was accomplished in the birth of Our Lord,
On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me,
Six geese a laying…
Six geese a laying are the six days of creation. The eggs of the geese hold the promise of life to come; which represents the maintenance and expansion of God’s creation.
On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me,
Seven swans a swimming…
Seven swans a swimming represent the seven sacraments. Sailing majestically on the seas of grace of which they are the guardians, custodians, and dispensers of these living waters. “Go, and wash seven times in the Jordan, and thy flesh shall recover health, and thou shalt be clean.” (IV Kings 5:10)
On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me,
Eight maids a milking…
Eight maids a milking symbolize the eight beatitudes. The good that we can draw from the attitudes praised in the Sermon on the Mount are as rich and wholesome as our mother’s milk. We must observe these precepts, “…that thou mayst enter into the land which Thy Lord God will give thee, a land flowing with milk and honey, as He swore to thy fathers.” (Deut. 27:3)
On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me,
Nine ladies dancing…
Nine ladies dancing stand for the nine choirs of angels. As a dancer is swift and elegant, so do the Angels of God execute His orders, moving to the music of Heaven.
On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me,
Ten lords a leaping…
Ten lords a leaping are the Ten Commandments. If we keep these Commandments, we can leap from the bonds of this earth even to the heights of Heaven.
On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me,
Eleven pipers piping…
Eleven pipers piping are the first eleven faithful Apostles. Like players in an orchestra, we must do our part in the great symphony of God’s plan for us. We play each the song that we are given and it becomes a part of a greater harmony, taking care not to strike a false note.
On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me,
Twelve drummers drumming…
Twelve drummers drumming represent the twelve points of belief in the Apostle’s Creed, which constitutes the stirring, throbbing undercurrent that binds the Catholic Faith together. It is the foundation upon which the Church is built.
With the due explanation, the apparent nonsense of the carol becomes a treasure of precious stones. A summary of the principal points of the Catholic doctrine are accessible to a child under the form of an innocent Christmas song.
It is an example of the Catholic wisdom that was sprinkled onto everything in Christendom. It is an invitation for you to enjoy even more this charming song.