When I bought twelve hand-painted bulb shaped ornaments in a thrift shop for $ 1.00 I knew I’d found a treasure. The first orb showed a hand painted partridge sitting in a pear tree. The next ornament displayed two turtle doves. The rest followed, each one singing out its merriment to the last of the set: 12 Drummers Drumming.
I thought the Twelve Days of Christmas song was nothing more than a memory game for children and a reminder of the Epiphany—the number of days between Jesus’s birth and the arrival of the wise men. The lyrics didn’t make sense until I researched the song’s true purpose and found what some scholars believe was a secret teaching tool for Catholics, persecuted during the reign of King Henry V111 (1509-1547).
The partridge in a pear tree was Jesus Christ. The two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments. Three French hens stood for faith, hope and love. The four calling birds were four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
The five gold rings recalled the Torah or Law, the first five books of the Old Testament. The six geese a laying stood or the six days of creation. Seven swans a swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit—Prophesy, Serving, Teaching, Exhortation, Contribution, Leadership and Mercy.
The eight maids a-milking were the eight beatitudes. Nine ladies dancing were the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit—Love-Joy-Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control. The ten lords a leaping stood for the Ten Commandments. The eleven pipers pipping were the eleven faithful disciples. The twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in the Apostles’ Creed.
Now, when I sing the song with my 3 -year-old great-granddaughter, I’ll know what it’s all about. Someday, there will come a time when she’ll be able to understand the origin of the popular carol. She’ll then see how fortunate she is to live in a country where we don’t have to disguise our religious beliefs for fear of persecution.
Merry Christmas, everyone.