Net Abbey



Twelve Days of Christmas - all you wanted to know and more than that! :)

Net Abbey home page              back to news page
Most of us are familiar with the song, "the twelve days of Christmas" in which the singer's 'true love' gives various gifts. Actually the amount of money these gifts would cost would be too high for most people's tastes. J Patrick Bradley who was the chief economist at the Provident National Bank in Philadephia, calculates the following costs for the true love's gifts:
  • The Partridge in a Pear Tree .................$27.48
  • Two turtle doves ......................................$50.00
  • Three French Hens .................................$15.00
  • Four Calling Birds ..................................$280.00
  • The Five Gold Rings ..............................$600.00
  • Six Geese a-laying ..................................$150.00
  • Seven Swans a-swimming .................$7,000.00
  • Eight Maids a-milking .................................$20.40
  • Nine Ladies dancing .............................$2,417.90
  • Ten Lords a-leaping ..............................$1686.56
  • Eleven pipers piping .............................$947.70
  • Twelve drummers drumming ...........$10,026.68

Grand total would be....... $23071.72

This song has always been less than easy to understand - we don't celebrate 12 days of Christmas and then, why did the lover give such strange gifts.  When singing the song, I would picture the recipient's home as resembling a zoo by the 12th day!

In the 1980's, Fr Hal Stockert, in digging through some old correspondance between French Jesuits and British Jesuits, stumbled upon the mention of this song as written by the Jesuits in England during the 16th century right after the Anglican split when there was a persecution of all who choose to remain Roman Catholic - Many Catholic churches were destroyed as well as convents and monasteries.

The Jesuits, in their efforts to keep the Catholic faith alive in Britain without calling attention to themselves (being Catholic was an offense punishable by death or imprisonment), reputedly wrote "The Twelve Days of Christmas" as an entertaining way for the children to memorize the catechism.  To the Anglicans, it just sounded like a holiday song but the gifts had a deeper meaning.

Fr Hal wrote an article which has since circulated around the Internet and the BBSes and online services (like Compuserve). The article gave the Christian history and the underlying meaning of the 12 gifts.

in 2005, Fr Russell Roide, SJ, the Jesuit pastor of our parish, ran into the history of the "12 days of Christmas" when he was visiting England and conversing with Jesuits there.  Those he talked to, attributed the song to the authorship of some "wily Jesuit priests" in the 16th century and showed him some ancient documents in their possession which further validated it.  He came home and wrote for our church, an article about this for the parish bulletin...

Unfortunately, Fr Hal lost the correspondence which validated the story, in a basement flood caused by a leaky pipe.  So when one of the urban legend websites approached him to validate the story, he was no longer in possession of the papers which mentioned the song.  SNOPES.COM was unimpressed and wrote a rather scathing article refuting the possibility that the "12 days of Christmas"  was a Christian song.  Fr Hal who still hangs around one of the Catholic lists and who is a personal friend of mine, says he's so sick of people dissing him for this historical fact which he discovered that he no longer posts the message on the lists. It's one of those "Life is too short" issues. :)  I think people don't want to accept it because of the anti religious sentiment we are experiencing now and also because they don't want to admit that the persecution of Catholics which is CONSTANTLY going on...

Here are the deeper meanings of the 12 gifts. "My True Love" is God who is giving these gifts to the Catholic individual:

  • The Partridge in a Pear Tree was Jesus reigning from the cross (often called a tree in hymns)
  • Two turtle doves was the Bible, the Old and New Testaments
  • Three French Hens stood for the three virtues of Faith, Hope and Love or the three gifts of the Magi brought to the baby Jesus
  • Four Calling Birds were the four gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John - singing the Good News of Salvation
  • The Five Gold Rings recalled the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible - these books contain the fall of man, God's revelation of Himself to man and His creating the covenant between Himself and man. Since this is the cornerstone of Christianity, this could explain the prominence of the "five golden rings" in the music.
  • Six Geese a-laying stood for the 6 days in which God created the world or the 6 precepts of the Church
  • Seven Swans a-swimming represented the Seven Sacraments - the symbolism on this may be that the metaphor of the "Waters of Sanctifying Grace" is sometimes used - this Grace is obtained from the Sacraments.  The fact that swans are used could be that their young are considered not pretty but the adults are beautiful - like our sin burdened souls becoming beautiful from swimming in the Waters of Sanctifying Grace.
  • Eight Maids a-milking were the eight Beatitudes
  • Nine Ladies dancing were the Nine Choirs of Angels.  The symbolism here could have that angels are often portrayed as wearing dresses and having long hair.
  • Ten Lords a-leaping were the Ten Commandments - this connection could be the House of Lords i.e. the Ten Commandments are the LAW of the church.
  • Eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful disciples and
  • Twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in the Apostles' Creed

The article on raises the following points:

1. They cannot find the documentation for this being a catechesis tool.   However, in truth, if the documentation is in old correspondance, owned by the Jesuit order, this would not be available to

2. Since the Anglicans and the Catholics teach a similar catechism, why would the Jesuits go through the bother of codifying the main precepts of the church in a song?  It should be remembered that Anglicans and Catholics were not on speaking terms, since the Catholics were under persecution. It would make sense that Catholics would not use the catechism of the "enemy".  Additionally, such a song like this does not replace a catechism but is merely a tool for quick memorization and is used IN addition to the catechism.

3. The snopes article states that the attempts to assign deeper meanings to nursery rhymes lacks historical basis and attributes this story about the "12 days of Christmas" as an attempt to do something similar.  This is not a good argument. Many of the nursery rhymes have nonsensical words unless you look at the political meaning.  We can see much of the same sort of thing in the Louis Carroll books "Through the Looking Glass" "Alice in Wonderland" and Carroll admitted himself, PUTTING the codified political stuff in the book. We can see this type of writing in the book of Revelations as well, which has been DOCUMENTED by scholars to be a codified catechism written so that if found by the Romans, it would be taken as nonsensical.

4. Snopes uses the logic that Catholics were "not really that persecuted" in the 16th century.  This is not a correct assumption. Truth is after the Anglican split, the British despoiled just about EVERY Catholic church AND monastery AND convent that they could find.  That is why there ARE NO really old Catholic shrines in the UK except if they were converted over to Anglican usage.  Because there was often bitter feelings between churches which split off and the "mother church", Catholic history written by non Catholics is notoriously inaccurate.  Changing history is something we are still doing in the 21st century and something which was done as early as 5000 years BC when Horemheb "lost" the 18th dynasty by leveling the city, Amarna and all the traces of it.  He did such a good job that it wasn't until the late 19th century, that suspicions began to arise due to the appearance of artifacts from the 18th dynasty.  And by 1920, archeologists confirmed the 18th dynasty and we learned about Amonhoptep, Nefertiti and King Tut.

I feel the logic in the article on the Snopes site is faulty and does not reflect a knowledge of Catholic history. offers no documentation that the "12 days of Christmas" was NOT a song used in Catechesis and we do have the Jesuit tradition on this from Fr Roide who is a Jesuit scholar, as well as Fr Hal's research. Both suggest that this WAS a song of catechesis.

Whatever the case, modern Christians can still be inspired by the song.  See if, when you sing it next time, you don't think more of Jesus!

Research data:

Fr Russell Roide, SJ

Fr Hal Stockert