The Real Twelve Days of Christmas

MarryingMinda Crop to UseMany of America’s present-day Christmas customs were in place by the mid 1800’s. Our trip to small New England towns lets me easily visualize sleighs full of carolers dashing through the snow singing their hearts out. But out West, the mountain man and lone cowboy had to make do all by their lonesome, in freezing weather and often a blizzard. Soldiers might gather together at the fort to roast venison and join in song. Farms and ranches were miles apart, so most caroling likely took place inside a cozy homestead with the family members. 


At our house, most of the caroling took place as lullabies when our kids were little. My son’s all-time favorite was The Twelve Days of Christmas. Each line, each verse, each refrain. He knew it all, so I couldn’t get away with skipping one single line. I was aware of the medieval images of the song itself, but I didn’t know until recently that the song has a sacred meaning. The odd gifts mentioned all have a “double life.” 


Although our local malls and radio stations are currently offering gimmicks each day for the “twelve days of Christmas” right now, prior to December 25, the twelve days traditionally start December 26, on St. Stephen’s Day, with celebration ending end on January 6, the feast if the Epiphany, or visit of the Magi. The custom began in England, starting with the lighting of the Yule log on Christmas Eve, which stayed burning until Twelfth Night, a time of great festivity. 

From 1558 to a Parliamentary decree in 1829, Roman Catholics in England were prohibited from public practices of their faith.

So the enoyable carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” developed as a “catechism song” or teaching aid to help children learn the tenets of their faith. The song’s gifts are hidden meanings. First off, the “true love” isn’t an earthly suitor, but God Himself.

12 Days of Christmas 1 

First Day: The partridge, known as a valiant bird willing to fight to the death to defend its young, represents Jesus, and the pear tree, the cross. 1partridgeinpeartree

Second Day: Two meanings here: Doves, required as sacrifice in Jewish Law and offered by Mary and Joseph when Jesus was 40 days old, symbolized either His later sacrifice…or the Old and New testaments. 

Third Day: The three French hens refer to the holy Trinity, to the three valuable gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, brought by the wise man, and the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity. 

Fourth Day: Four calling birds were reminders of the first four books of the New Testament, the four Gospels that proclaim Jesus’ life and teachings. 

Fifth Day: Five golden rings recall the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch. 

Sixth Day: Six geese a’laying symbolizes the six days of creation.  In many cultures, eggs stand for “new life.” It can also signify the six days of the working week, with Sunday reserved for worship. 

Seventh Day: The seven swimming swans stand both for the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit that help “ugly ducklings” grow into God’s children, or the seven sacraments. 12 Days of Christmas 2

Eighth Day:  The eight maids a’milking show the nurturing of the Beatitudes written in Matthew 5. It can also refer to the eight people saved on Noah’s ark. 

Ninth Day: Nine ladies dancing represent the nine fruits of the Spirit mentioned in Galatians 5, love, joy, peace, patience kindness goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. 


Tenth Day: The ten lords a’leaping symbolize the Ten Commandments.   

Eleventh Day: The pipers piping signify the eleven faithful apostles. 

Twelfth Day: And last but not least, the twelve drummers marked the twelve points of belief in the Apostles Creed, and also represent the twelve tribes of Israel. 


Have you heard any of these double meanings before? I loved learning this and couldn’t resist passing it on. But even with the sacred theme today, I also can’t resist a re-write of this great song in Western terms. Wanna play? How about let’s start out with…a roadrunner in a piñon pine tree? Who wants to take on Day Two? (No symbolism required.) 

And to you and yours, best wishes for a blessed, safe, a meaningful Christmastide!

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36 thoughts on “The Real Twelve Days of Christmas”

  1. Hi Tanya, Loved your post! I’d never read any of this before. My kids liked the song too, especially the youngest one. Isn’t the symbolism fascinating?

    And about the rewrite . . .

    Two blue jays squawking,
    and a roadrunner in a pinon pine tree

  2. Tanya, when my kids were younger we had a twenty-five mile communte everyday and this time of years we’d sing Christmas carols to pass the time. The 12 Days Of Christmas was one of their favorites – thanks for triggering the memories.

    As for my contribution to the rewrite

    Three crows cawing
    Two blue jays squawking
    and a roadrunner in a pinon tree

  3. Hmmm. Four calves a-bawling? Great post, Tanya. I’ve always loved the old carols. ‘Once In Royal David’s City’ is a favorite of mine, as is the Huron Carol, which I think fits this site. Here it is:

    ‘Twas in the moon of wintertime when all the birds had fled
    That mighty Gitchie Manitou sent angel choirs instead
    Before their light the stars grew dim, and wandering hunters heard the hymn
    “Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born
    In Excelsius Gloria

    Within a hut of broken bark the tender Babe was found
    A ragged robe of rabbit skin enwrapped His beauty ’round
    And three great chiefs before Him knelt, with gifts of fox and beaver pelt
    Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born
    In Excelsius Gloria

    The brightest moon of wintertime was not so round and fair
    As was the ring of glory round the Infant lying there
    And as the hunter braves drew nigh, the angel’s song rang loud and high
    Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born
    In Excelsius Gloria

    O children of the forest free, O sons of Manitou
    The holy Child of earth and heaven is born this day for you
    Come kneel before the radiant Boy who brings you beauty, peace and joy
    Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born
    In Excelsius Gloria

    This carol was written in the 1700’s by Father Jean Brebeuf, a Jesuit missionary to the Huron Indians in Quebec. Tragically, Father Brebeuf was killed when the Iroquois destroyed the Huron, but his poetic attempt to explain Christmas in terms to which the Huron could relate lives on. The melody is beautiful, too.

  4. OK. I’ll tag on a line. How about:

    Five jangling spurs
    Four calves a-bawling
    Three crows cawing
    Two blue jays squawking
    and a roadrunner in a pinion pine tree.

    Fun idea, Tanya. And I loved the extra meaning in the 12 days song. I had heard some of them before. It’s similar to the storry behind the candy cane. Supposedly the candy maker designed it not as a cane, but as the letter J for Jesus with the red representing his blood shed and white for the purity of his life lived. Great traditions and stories behind them.

  5. Hi Vicki and Winnie, oh, isn’t Christmas a great time for memories about our kids?

    And thanks for helping with the re-write. I love blue jays (so pretty) even if they’re pesky, and the cawing crows reminds me of the territorial family of them who live in nearby tree and keep taking the nuts I leave out for my little squirrel friend Rocket J. Grrrrrrrrrr. Caw-caw.

    oxoxoxo to my filly sisters.

  6. Hi Jennie, always so good to see you at the Junction. I love the Christmas carol you posted. It’s a new one for me. I am always interewted in Native American culture. Thanks! And I love the bawling calves.

    Merry Christmas, Jennie!

  7. Hi Karen, I love the jangling spurs. Thanks as well for the candy cane info. I’d heard some of that but not the letter J symbolism. Love it. Mom used to say the candy cane represents the shepherd’s staffs, too.

    Thanks for the great post.

  8. Great post Tanya, I have never heard the meanings behind this song and I loved them. I do love this Christmas song very much its very catchy.

  9. Hi Quilt Lady, I didn’t know any of it either…my mom gave me a lovely book about it a few Christmases ago. Always good to have you stup in at the Junction. Thank you!

  10. nine broncos bucking
    eight pioneers a camping
    seven tumbleweeds a tumbling
    six cowgirls roping
    Five jangling spurs
    Four calves a-bawling
    Three crows cawing
    Two blue jays squawking
    and a roadrunner in a pinion pine tree.

    I this Tanya. Really interesting.

  11. I have read about the double meaning of the song before. I find it fascinating.

    Let’s see, ten…
    Ten cowboys singing,
    nine broncos bucking,
    eight pioneers a camping,
    seven tumbleweeds a tumbling,
    six cowgirls roping,
    Five jangling spurs,
    Four calves a-bawling,
    Three crows cawing,
    Two blue jays squawking,
    and a roadrunner in a pinion pine tree.

  12. Hi Tanya – you do have the most fascinating blogs! I loved learning this and the double meaning behind the lyrics. You are good!
    Merry Christmas to you and everyone at Wildflower Junction!!

  13. Hi Tanya, “Twelve” needs something really fabulous . . . Let’s brainstorm!

    Twelve Stallions Leaping
    Twelve Texans Twanging
    Twelve Riders Riding
    Twelve Fillies Rhyming

    Other ideas?

  14. Never heard of this “double meaning,” Tanya. Neat post.

    My four-year-old granddaughter loves Twelve Days of Christmas, too. On a recent car trip we played and sang it over and over and over and over and….

  15. hi Charlene and Kay, more of my filly sisters. Thanks for taking time out of these busy days to join me here! I just got back from cleaning out the dollar stores for stocking stuffers. The grandbaby is into ANYTHING from the movie Cars. oxoxoxoxoxoxox

  16. hi Melinda, always glad to see you at the Junction. Here’s some Christmas peace backatcha.

    Oh, Vicki, how clever you are! I’m torn between the twanging Texans and the fillies rhyming…

    Maybe we’ll hear from somebody else to decide for sure LOL. Thanks for stopping by. oxoxoxoxox

  17. Hi Elizabeth, another of us fillies. Tell you what…next time you and your granddaughter sing this carol, try to leave something out! Bet she won’t let you. It is a great song for kids.

    Thanks for coming by today, and everybody else, too. This was fun! oxoxoxoxox

  18. Tanya,
    Great post. Knew there was another meaning for the song, but never heard all the details. Thanks for filling in the blanks.
    The Petticoats and Pistols Rewrite is great.

    12 coyotes howling?

    Hope everyone has a wonderful Holiday Season!

  19. Hi Tanya! I’m late, but I’m here. I need to get back to commenting on all my friends’ blogs! So behind on everything… But I loved this! It’s fun to learn the symbolism behind such a beloved holiday standard.

  20. Hi Helen, it’s always great to have you here at Wildflower Junction. Thanks for taking the time to post. I am glad you enjoyed our foray into the Twelve Days of Christmas. oxoxoxxo

  21. Patricia, howdy! so good to see you here. I totally love your idea for Number 12. Thanks for being so creative. We got so many great ideas on that last one I can’t begin to pick a finalist LOL.

    Thanks, everybody. Merry Christmas to you and may God bless us all, everyone! Hugs and greetings from my homestead to yours.

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