Whither the Twelve Days of Christmas?


I saw Fr. William Saunder's article on the alleged “history” of the 12 Days of Christmas on catholicexchange.com. I have reason to doubt this history is authentic. The reasons why are enumerated at the following website: www.snopes2.com

Of these reasons, the most significant (to me) is the fact that NONE of the doctrines which the “gifts” allegedly symbolise are specific to Catholicism, except the eight times a year the faithful were prescribed to receive communion, and *perhaps* the number of choirs of angels.

I do enjoy the other articles, but wanted to call your attention to my doubts about this one.

Edward Curtis

Morgantown, WV

Dear Edward,

Thanks for your fact checking. I did not see the piece myself (too busy writing other stuff) but I was aware of the website that argues that this an urban legend. I do not know where Fr. Saunders was getting his information from. The norm in such situations is that there is multiple (and usually irreconcilable) documentation from various sources claiming to trace the origin of things like anonymous folk songs, fairy stories, and so forth.

I tend to suspect that both Fr. Saunders and the Urban Legends websites have slices of some truth, but that nobody will ever be able to really give an account of the origin of the Twelve Days of Christmas since reporters were not around to trace either its origin or its progress through English-speaking culture. All they can do is look back and point to various rumors from people who may or may not know much more than we do.

At any rate, it's a fun tale and not to be worried about overmuch.

Many thanks for writing and have a great New Year!

Mark Shea

Senior Content Editor

Catholic Exchange

Dear Editor:

Today's featured article on Catholic Exchange is Fr William Saunders' “The Meaning and History of the Twelve Days of Christmas”. This contains a variation of the “hidden catechism” story that has been floating around on the Internet for a long time. I have no objections to the use of the song for such mnemonic purposes, and I think it is actually quite charming. But I do object to the “hidden catechism” background being presented as being real history. It appears to be an urban legend of dubious origin, and the arguments against its historicity seem strong. In particular, the tenets of faith supposedly hidden in the song were shared with the Church of England, so such “smuggling” is quite unnecessary.

Publishing urban legends as fact makes Catholics look a little silly. I don't blame you for publishing unchecked something that originally came from a newspaper, but perhaps an editor's note can be put in mentioning the questionable historicity of its claim.


Actually, Chris, I thought it best to remove the article entirely. Thanks for the heads-up.

Happy new year and eleventh day of Christmas (11 pipers piping?). We appreciate your support of Catholic Exchange.


Tom Allen


Dear Tom,

I know what the Urban Legends page says about the Twelve Days of Christmas, but I would tend to believe the Catholic Church before a secular entity that may or may not have an ax to grind. FYI, a priest named Father Edward T. Dowling has written the following about the song:

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” celebrates the official Christmas season which starts liturgically on Christmas Day and ends twelve days later on the Feast of the Epiphany. “My true love” refers to God, “me” is the individual Catholic. The “twelve lords a leaping” are the twelve basic beliefs of the Catholic Church as outlined in the Apostles Creed. The “eleven pipers piping” are the eleven Apostles who remained faithful after the treachery of Judas. The “ten ladies dancing” are the Ten Commandments. The “nine drummers drumming” are the nine choirs of angels which in those days of class distinction were thought important. The “eight maids a milking” are the Eight Beatitudes. The “seven swans a swimming” are the Seven Sacraments. The “six geese a laying” are the Six Commandments of the Church or the six days of creation. The “five golden rings” are the first five books of the Old Testament called the Torah which are generally considered the most sacred and important of all the Old Testament. The “four calling birds” are the Four Gospels. The “three French hens” are the Three Persons in God or the three gifts of the Wise Men. The “two turtle doves” represent the two natures in Jesus: human and divine or the two Testaments, Old and New. The “partridge” is the piece de resistance, Jesus himself, and the “pear tree” is the Cross.

Janet Crook

Dear Ms. Crook,

Thanks for sharing this. While the historicity is difficule to determine, this certainly is the best Catholic analysis of the song I've seen.


Tom A.

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