What’s with all the Birds? Explaining the 12 Days of Christmas

One of the absolute best things about Christmas is that it lasts for 12 whole days – that’s almost 2 full weeks! A Catholic tradition, these twelve days are important because they give us more time to reflect on the impact that Christ’s Incarnation has had on our lives… cuz let’s be honest, 24 hours is not enough time to contemplate and celebrate if you think about what actually took place 2,000 years ago!

The famous English Christmas carol naturally comes to mind when thinking of this tradition, and it was actually written to help Catholic children learn their catechism. For almost 300 years, it was illegal for Catholics to openly practice their faith in England. The gifts in the song represent and explain many of the core beliefs of our Catholic faith and aided the children in memorization when they couldn’t speak of their beliefs.

“My true love” is, of course, God — Love himself. It is he who gifted every baptized person (known as “me” in the song) with each of these items outlined in the seasonal carol.

  1.  Partridge in a Pear Tree– This represents Christ crucified. The tree is the cross, which bore fruit for all. Similarly the partridge represents Christ because the bird has a natural instinct to protect its young. A partridge will distract and lead a predator away from its nest, even if it leads to their own death in the process. Just as the partridge sacrifices itself for the sake of its young, Jesus sacrificed himself to save us from eternal death.
  2. Two Turtle Doves– Interestingly, these birds form strong pair bonds, which is why I think it’s pretty cool that they represent the Old & New Testaments which together form a “pair” of sorts and together make up God’s Word.
  3. Three French Hens– represent the Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope and Love. While there is no explicit explanation for this particular choice of poultry to represent the Theological virtues, I made some connections from what I read on wikipedia (obviously, you should take this with a grain of salt). French Hens are beautiful and adapt well to different circumstances; they are great at producing eggs and apparently are also raised for their meat. Similarly the Theological Virtues help us to faithfully adapt to the different circumstances of our lives, to “produce” spiritual food for others, and even to offer ourselves as living sacrifices.
  4. Four Calling Birds– represent the four Gospels and their Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John). A calling bird is also known as a song bird. While every bird can chirp or sing, only the song bird can sing a wide variety of melodies. These melodies attract the attention of potential mates. I find it interesting that these birds represent the Evangelists, who were spreading the Good News of Christ (the bridegroom) who came to call everyone to live within the covenant in his Church (the bride).
  5. Five Golden Rings– represent the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy) which describe man’s fall into sin and God’s promise of deliverance. Once again, I could find no explicit explanation as to why “gold” represents these books, but I do have two guesses. The first is that gold has to be purified through burning, and if you know any of the stories that take place within these books, you know that a lot of purification is taking place. Likewise, these books set the stage for the rest of Salvation History. They are “gold” when it comes to understanding God in the Old Testament (and thus also in the New Testament).
  6. Six Geese a-laying– represent the 6 days of creation. While geese can lay anywhere from 1-10 eggs a year, the typical number it lays is between 5-6. It’s easy to see the congruence between the 6 days of creation, and the creation of 6 eggs by a goose.
  7. Seven Swans a-swimming– the 7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit (Prophesy, Service, Teaching, Exhortation, Contribution, Leadership & Mercy), as well as the 7 Sacraments. A clear connection between swans, the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the Sacraments is the presence of grace. If I was asked for one adjective to describe a swan, it would definitely be “graceful.” Ironically, the Sacraments bring us God’s grace, and grace is also obvious within the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.
  8. Eight Maids a-milking– represent the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes raise the spiritual status of the poor and the least of society. The Beatitudes tie in nicely with the image of a milkmaid, as they were usually pretty poor and low in the ranks of society’s social circles.
  9. Nine Ladies Dancing– represent the 9 Fruits of the Holy Spirit (Charity, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Meekness, Fidelity, Modesty, & Chastity); this reminds me of King David, filled with the Holy Spirit, dancing before the Ark of the Covenant, giving rightful praise to God.
  10. Ten Lords a-Leaping– remind us of the Ten Commandments. It is presumed that these leaping lords are in fact professional Morris dancers, which would have been popular at medieval banquets in England. The Morris dance is one of those peculiar British traditions which, like most British traditions, is all about form and structure. The Ten Commandments certainly provide form and structure for our moral and spiritual lives.
  11. Eleven Pipers Piping– represent the 11 faithful apostles and their task of spreading the Gospel, much like a piper promenading through the streets.
  12. Twelve Drummers Drumming– represent the 12 points of belief listed in the Apostles Creed. In battle, the drummers keep the troupe together as a unit. The beat of the drums is recognizable to any soldier who hears it and the army can move forward in unison. Likewise, the Apostles’ Creed outlines 12 doctrines of belief to which all the faithful adhere.

The amount needed to purchase all these gifts would be well over the equivalent of $20,000 at the time this song was written. Thus, in addition to helping young children learn their catechism, the song also portrays the great love the Giver (God) has for the recipient (every Baptized person).

Merry Christmas to all of you! Keep the party rolling!

And remember, you are so loved!

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