The 12 days of Christmas in Christian theology signifies the time between the birth of Christ and the arrival of the three wise men, also known as the Magi. It starts on December 25, which is celebrated as Christmas Day, and lasts until January 6, which is the Epiphany, also referred to as Three Kings' Day.
What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
The Twelve Days of Christmas, also known as Twelvetide, is a festive Christian season celebrating the Birth of Jesus. In 567, the Council of Tours "proclaimed the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany as a sacred and festive season, and established the duty of Advent fasting in preparation for the feast." Christopher Hill and William J. Federer state that this was done to solve the "administrative problem for the Roman Empire as it tried to coordinate the solar Julian calendar with the lunar calendars of its provinces in the east."
Why were these 12 days important? These dozen days were tied to more than just the teaching of the Catholic Church. A host of other denominations also celebrated the 12 days of Christmas. Some denominations celebrated Christmas in January and began to count the 12 days then. But when they began, counting the days became an important facet of each holiday season. Even in the Dark Ages, in some Eastern European churches, the 12 days of Christmas meant attending daily church services. For Christians who lived during this extremely difficult age, the 12 days were a time of rededication and renewal. It was also a period when children were given small, simple, and usually symbolic gifts of faith. Thus, the twelve days were considered a holy period in both coded poems and public worship.
The 12 Days of Christmas - Carol Meaning and Origin
"The Twelve Days of Christmas" is an English Christmas carol that lists a group of increasingly superb gifts given on each of the 12 days of Christmas (the 12 days that make up the Christmas season, starting with Christmas Day). The song, published in England in 1780 without music as a chant or rhyme, is thought to be French in origin. The melodies of collected versions of the carol vary throughout history. The standard tune now associated with it is derived from a 1909 arrangement of a traditional folk melody by English composer Frederic Austin, who introduced the familiar prolongation of the verse "five gold rings" (now usually called "five golden rings").
Though a host of modern internet sites and some magazine articles have tried to reduce “The Twelve Days of Christmas” to a little more than a silly Christmas carol, most scholars of the Catholic Church deem it a very important surviving example of a time when that denomination used codes to disguise their teachings. Originally a poem written by Catholic clerics, this song was transformed into a carol at a time when celebrating the 12 days of Christmas was one of the most important holiday customs. By understanding the meaning of why the clerics chose the 12 days as wrapping for their poem, the full impact of the tradition of the 12 days of Christmas can be understood.
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12 Days of Christmas: Lyric Meaning of Each Gift
1. On the First Day of Christmas, My True Love Gave to Me:
A Partridge in a Pear Tree.
The partridge in a pear tree represents Jesus, the Son of God, whose birthday we celebrate on the first day of Christmas. Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge, the only bird that will die to protect its young.
2. On the Second Day of Christmas, My True Love Gave to Me:
These twin birds represent the Old and New Testaments. So, in this gift, the singer finds the complete story of the Christian faith and God’s plan for the world. The doves are the biblical roadmap that is available to everyone.
3. On the Third Day of Christmas, My True Love Gave to Me:
Three French Hens.
These birds represent faith, hope, and love. This gift hearkens back to 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter written by the Apostle Paul.
4. On the Fourth Day of Christmas, My True Love Gave to Me:
Four Calling Birds.
One of the easiest facets of the song’s code to figure out, these fowl are the four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
5. On the Fifth Day of Christmas, My True Love Gave to Me:
Five Gold Rings.
The gift of the rings represents the first five books of the Old Testament, known as the Torah or the Pentateuch.
6. On the Sixth Day of Christmas, My True Love Gave to Me:
Six Geese a-Laying.
These lyrics can be traced back to the first story found in the Bible. Each egg is a day in creation when God “hatched” or formed the world.
7. On the Seventh Day of Christmas, My True Love Gave to Me:
Seven Swans a-Swimming.
It would take someone quite familiar with the Bible to identify this gift. Hidden in the code are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion. As swans are one of the most beautiful and graceful creatures on earth, they would seem to be a perfect symbol for spiritual gifts.
8. On the Eighth Day of Christmas, My True Love Gave to Me:
As Christ came to save even the lowest of the low, this gift represents the ones who would receive his word and accept his grace. Being a milkmaid was about the worst job one could have in England during this period; this code conveyed that Jesus cared as much about servants as he did those of royal blood. The eight who were blessed included the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
9. On the Ninth Day of Christmas, My True Love Gave to Me:
Nine Ladies Dancing.
These nine dancers were really the gifts known as the fruit of the Spirit. The fruits are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
10. On the Tenth Day of Christmas, My True Love Gave to Me:
Ten Lords a-leaping.
This is probably the easiest gift to understand. As lords were judges and in charge of the law, this code for the Ten Commandments was fairly straightforward to Catholics.
11. On the Eleventh Day of Christmas, My True Love Gave to Me:
Eleven Pipers Piping.
This is almost a trick question, as most think of the disciples in terms of the dozen. But when Judas betrayed Jesus and committed suicide, only eleven men carried out the gospel message.
12. On the Twelfth Day of Christmas, My True Love Gave to Me:
Twelve Drummers Drumming.
The final gift is tied directly to the Catholic Church. The drummers are the 12 points of doctrine in the Apostles’ Creed. “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day, he rose again. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.”
Twelve Days of Christmas Carol with Lyrics
When Are the 12 Days of Christmas in 2023?
The 12 days of Christmas traditionally begin on Christmas Day and last twelve consecutive days into the next calendar year.
The Twelve Days of Christmas 2023 will begin on Monday, December 25, and end on Friday, January 5, 2024.
This article is part of our larger Christmas and Advent resource library centered around the events leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ. We hope these articles help you understand the meaning and story behind important Christian holidays and dates and encourage you as you take time to reflect on all that God has done for us through his Son, Jesus Christ!
What is Christmas? Understanding History, Origin, and Traditions
The History of Santa Claus: Origin of St. Nicholas & Christmas Traditions
When Was Jesus Born? History of December 25th
What is Advent: Definition & Meaning Behind Christmas Tradition
Christmas Bible Verses & Scripture Story