The song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas," refers literally to the 12 days that occur between the celebration of Christmas and the traditional date of the Epiphany, Jan. 6. On each of the days, a suitor is said to give a gift to his beloved.
In 1982, Father Hal Stockert theorized that this song was an underground catechism for Catholics living in post-Reformation England. After King Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church to form the Church of England, practicing Catholicism was a capital offense. The song was a secret way for Catholics to pass on the faith to the next generation, with the gifts being code for different parts of the creed.
Since 1982, Father Stockert has been challenged to produce evidence of his claim. In response to these calls, he has claimed that the evidence he had, letters from Irish priests secretly ministering in England at the time, were destroyed in a flood.
The urban legend website Snopes has a modern critique of Father Stockert's theory. One interesting point is that several of the encoded phrases are tenants of belief that Catholics and Anglicans share. If this is so, why would Catholics need to hide their belief in things Anglicans believe as well? Also, some of the gifts are open to different interpretation. The four calling birds, for instance, could mean the four Gospels or the four major Old Testament prophets. If the song has a deeper, secret meaning, shouldn't the meaning be more definitively set? Even with these criticisms, critics of Father Stockert don't discount the possibility of the song having a deeper catechetical meaning, based on its connection to another catechetical song, "A New Dial."
The theory of the deeper meaning sets God as the giver of the gifts to the beloved (any baptized soul) who will receive these gifts from God. The meanings generally seen behind the gifts are:
• Partridge in a pear tree: Jesus, Son of God
• Two turtledoves: The two parts of the Bible, the Old and New Testaments
• Three French hens: The theological virtues of faith, hope and charity or the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity
• Four calling birds: The Four Evangelists (Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John) or the four major Old Testament prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel)
• Five golden rings: The first five books of the Old Testament, called the Pentateuch or the Book of Moses
• Six geese a-laying: Six days of creation
• Seven swans a-swimming: Seven sacraments or the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit
• Eight maids a-milking: Eight beatitudes
• Nine ladies dancing: The nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
• Ten lords a-leaping: The Ten Commandments
• Eleven pipers piping: The 11 faithful apostles, minus Judas Iscariot who betrayed Our Lord
• Twelve drummers drumming: The 12 points in the Apostle's Creed.
This column appeared in a previous edition of the St. Louis Review.
Father Mayo is pastor of Holy Rosary Parish in Warrenton.