The Cherished Tradition of the 12 Days of Christmas

Published Date: December 14th, 2009
Category: Holiday Fun

By Jon Griffin

Most of us are familiar with the song, The 12 Days of Christmas, even though many folks might have a bit of trouble keeping the lines of the song straight after about the sixth day! This song has been sung for generations, and is a traditional part of the holiday season. There have even been many versions of the song that have come out, since the structure lends itself well to variation and even humor. But did you ever stop to think what this seemingly nonsensical song really is about? While there is some disagreement over the actual purpose for The 12 Days of Christmas among historians, the theories regarding this fun and lively song are quite intriguing.

What exactly are the 12 Days of Christmas?

It may surprise you to know that the song actually takes place after Christmas day itself. Celebrated among many cultures they represent the Epiphany, which begins on December 26th and continues through January 6th. In the western church this is seen as the time it took the magi as they journeyed to see the baby Christ. This is a popular gift giving holiday, and is why January 6th is often referred to as Three Kings Day in many cultures around the globe. The symbolism is significant as it marks the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh brought by the three kings. Some cultures do not wait until a single day to gift gifts, but instead give a gift every day for 12 days. Going back even further the 12 days are often celebrated as a Pagan holiday meant to symbolize the coming of the new year and the banishing of evil spirits during this period.

There is a popular theory among historians that the gifts represented in The 12 Days of Christmas are actually symbols created by the Catholic Church to help children learn the catechism. Dating back to the 16th century during a time of religious wars in England the gifts are meant to represent a specific fundamental aspect of the Catholic faith. An example of this would be the gift of true love that is presented to me. This is said to represent the baptism every believer receives. More examples of gifts representing different aspects of the catechism are a partridge in a pear tree which is said to be Jesus, two turtle doves which is said to represent the Old and New Testaments, and three French hens which is interpreted to represent the three virtues of hope, faith and love.

Each gift continues to symbolize a different aspect of Catholic faith until we reach twelve drummers drumming which is said to represent the twelve points of the Apostles Creed. I think it’s fascinating that such a deeply symbolic message for the Catholic Church is carried on in the children’s song The 12 Days of Christmas. It only makes sense, as believers all over the globe celebrate Christmas to remember the birth of Jesus Christ.

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