Twelve Secret Days of Christmas?

Today is the third day of Christmas, the day my true love gave to me three French Hens. Or is this really a code for something else–perhaps the three theological virtues? Is the Christmas song “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which seems on the surface to be a secular song,  really a subversive way of teaching the tenets of faith?  For years, this story has been circulating, first by email, and then through Facebook and social media.  It just popped up in my feed this morning.

The Underground Catechism of the Twelve Days of Christmas, from my Facebook feed this morning.

I have long been fascinated by urban legends, an interest that dates back to the days when the World Wide Web was accessed by text-based browsers.  In those days, the Usenet newsgroup alt.folklore.urban did a fine job of discussing and debunking stories that circulated, usually in email, about all manner of tales of things that seemed to have “secret meanings.”  This is how I first learned that “Ring Around the Rosie” was not about the plague and that there was no such thing as the rite of the first night, despite the fact that it was shown in Braveheart (that most accurate of medieval films.)

The study of urban legends was in many ways pioneered by Jan Harold Brunvand, author of The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends & Their Meanings and several other books.Urban legends, as defined by Brunvand, are “realistic stories concerning recent events (or alleged events) with an ironic or supernatural twist.”  When I first became interested in them, they were spreading via email as much as they were from person to person. These days, a better definition might be a moralistic or cautionary tale normally passed on by someone you know, who often got it from “a friend.”   It often reflects current societal concerns.  And it is not always completely false—some urban legends have a grounding in truth, but have grown beyond their initial story.

You may be familiar with the fact-checking site  You may not know that this site was a direct outgrowth of discussions on alt.folklore.urban, where site founders Barbara and David Mikkelson were leaders in discussing debunking urban folklore. It’s really just a short leap from these sorts of stories to a wider discussion of fake news, and the techniques the Mikkelsons pioneered for verifying the veracity of urban legends are the same ones needed to verify any story circulating on the internet.

So, let’s look at our story about the “true meaning: of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

As I first heard it, as early as about fifteen years ago, the Twelve Days of Christmas was a secret song for persecuted Catholics in England, because to be caught with “anything in writing” revealing their faith would get them jailed.  The “meaning” of the song, the story goes, was:

  • Partridge in a Pear Tree:  God/Jesus
  • Two turtle doves:  Old and New Testaments
  • Three French hens:  Three theological virtues (faith, hope, charity) or three magi
  • Four colly birds:  Four gospels or evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John)
  • 5 golden rings: The Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament)
  • Six swans a-swimming: Six days of creation
  • Seven geese a-laying: Seven sacraments
  • Eight maids a-milking: Eight beatitudes
  • Nine ladies dancing: Nine fruits of the holy spirit
  • Ten lords a-leaping:  Ten commandments
  • Eleven pipers piping: Eleven faithful apostles
  • Twelve drummers drumming: Twelve parts of the Credo (the Nicene Creed, or statement of faith.)

The 13th century theological treatise I edited for my doctoral thesis covered much of this ground, with significant sections detailing the Commandments, Sacraments, Virtues, Beatitudes, and the Credo.  These are part of standard Catholic Christian theology–and, in fact, largely part of standard Protestant theology (apart from the Sacraments, which are often reduced in number in Protestant traditions).  The story goes, however, that this is a “subversive” text, circulated by Catholics who were being persecuted in England.  It is certainly true that Catholics were persecuted in England (starting, off and on, from the creation of the Church of England by Henry VIII).  But there is no single one of those twelve “days” that is specifically Catholic (except, as noted, the number of the Sacraments.)  What separated Catholic Christians from Protestants in these early days?  Why were they persecuted?  In England, it was because in retaining allegiance to the Pope, their loyalty to their monarch and country was suspect, as the head of the Anglican church was the sovereign.  Catholics and Protestants tended to use different translations of the Bible, and, as I mentioned, did downgrade five of the seven sacraments.  (Most significantly, Protestants believed in confessing sins directly to God, rather than through an intercessor priest, but certainly the idea of sin and penance did not differ greatly.) There is nothing in the song that is truly “secret doctrine” that would need to be passed through a coded verses.

So…is this “secret meaning” an “urban legend”?  And is it true?   It does qualify as an urban legend, primarily because it turns to history to reveal some “truth” about the modern age. The “message” for this modern era is the supposedly hidden Christian message in a “secular song”—both in the numbers and the “secret meanings” of the items in the song. confirmed my suspicions. As I had noted, the theology in the song isn’t uniquely Catholic, and obvious things that might distinguish a Catholic from an Anglican Protestant in the early modern period are not mentioned.  There is no reason why the things mentioned in the songs (such as the Old and New Testaments) could not be possessed in writing, since Anglicans used them, too.  Finally, other than the numbers, the items in the song have no connection with the articles of faith they supposedly represent—plus, depending on the version of the e-mail that goes around, the numbers represent different things (e.g. three—virtues, Magi, the Trinity)  If this were a memory aid, they would be much more standard.

So if this is not a “secret catechism,” what is the Twelve Days of Christmas? Douglas D. Anderson, in Hymns and Carols of Christmas, cites its usage as a “forfeits song” at Twelfth Night celebrations, where each person would have to add a verse, and if you missed, you owed a “forfeit.”  Snopes also mentions that this is the way it was presented in its first published form in 1780.

These stories often do have a kernel of truth—how about this one? Snopes cites a 1625 song called “A new dial” that assigned significance to each of the twelve days a of Christmas.  This version is lacking in birds, rings, pipers, etc. but does contain symbolism similar to that in the explanation of the Christmas carol.

In fact, according to Lucy Broadwood and other scholars of folk music “cumulative songs” very similar to this were in fact used as teaching devices for religious doctrine.  These songs often had twelve verses, with the explanations for each number being similar to many of those in the “Twelve Days” explanation.  “Green Grow the Rushes, O” is one such tune, and in fact, some of the explanations for the lines in the Twelve Days of Christmas are the ones directly cited in this song. (Incidentally, SCA members in Ealdormere might know its first line, “I’ll sing you one, O.”)  Here’s the twelfth verse:

12. I’ll sing you twelve, O
Green grow the rushes, O
What are your twelve, O?
Twelve for the twelve apostles,
Eleven for the eleven who went to heaven, and
Ten for the Ten Commandments,
Nine for the nine bright shiners,
Eight for the April rainers,
Seven for the seven stars in the sky, and
Six for the six proud walkers,
Five for the symbols at your door, and
Four for the gospel-makers,
Three, three arrivals!
Two, two lily-white boys
Clothed all in green, O
One is one, and all alone,
And ever more shall be so.

Fans of the band Great Big Sea will recognize this tune as “Come and I will Sing you,” with many of the traditional lines replaced by references to Newfoundland culture.

So, while the “explanation” for Twelve Days is probably not correct, the fact that it was used at Twelfth Night and its similarity to other traditional songs like this one likely led to the explanation about its “subversive” history.