The 12 Days of Christmas – a Secret Coded Song? Encore!

Many of you Buzzkillers already know that most Christian churches celebrate Christmas over a period of 12 days. Depending upon the denomination, it lasts from December 25th to January 5th, or December 26th to January 6th. There are lots of theological reasons for celebrating the 12 days of Christmas, but we’re here to talk about something a little less lofty than that. We’re going to bust that email myth about the song “The 12 Days of Christmas” that your nut-job uncle sent to you and everyone else he could think of. We know you’re not gullible enough to buy into his paranoid, persecution-complex-fueled rant about the song really being a way to teach oppressed Catholic children their catechism in secret. But the whole story is fascinating in its own right (and lots of people seem to believe it), so let’s talk about it.

You know the song/carol “The 12 Days of Christmas” — 12 Drummers Drumming, 11 Pipers Piping, 10 Lords a Leaping, 9 Ladies Dancing, and on down to a Partridge in a Pear Tree. Sounds like a great party that I should have been invited to, but wasn’t. Well, like the myth we busted recently about the religious “meaning and origin” of the candy cane, the original meaning of The 12 Days of Christmas has been forcefully misinterpreted and reinterpreted like this. The song was a secret way to teach young Catholics about their faith in Protestant England during the 16th-19th centuries.

According to the email your nutty uncle forwarded:

Catholics in England during the period 1558 to 1829, when Parliament finally emancipated Catholics in England, were prohibited from ANY practice of their faith by law – private OR public. It was a crime to BE a Catholic. 

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” was written in England as one of the “catechism songs” to help young Catholics learn the tenets of their faith – a memory aid, when to be caught with anything in writing indicating adherence to the Catholic faith could not only get imprisoned or executed.

The song’s gifts are hidden meanings to the teachings of the faith. The “true love” mentioned in the song doesn’t refer to an earthly suitor, it refers to God Himself. The “me” who receives the presents refers to every baptized person. The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 

The other gifts in the song symbolize the following: 

2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments 
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues 
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists 
5 Golden Rings = The first Five Books of the Old Testament 
6 Geese a-laying = the six days of creation 
7 Swans a-swimming = the seven sacraments 
8 Maids a-milking = the eight beatitudes mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit 
10 Lords a-leaping = the ten commandments 
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles 
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed

Again, the idea in the email is that the restrictions placed on Catholics in Protestant England were so severe that Catholic children had to be taught in secret ways, such as through songs or poems that seemed to be about something else but actually had hidden references to Catholic doctrine. But you know what I’m going to say, Buzzkillers, there’s no historical evidence of this whatsoever. If that were all there was to this story, I wouldn’t waste your time. The thing is, this myth is infuriating on so many levels that I can’t help myself.

Let’s first tackle the idea that, before Catholic Emancipation was enacted by Parliament in 1829, Catholics in England were in danger of being executed in especially gruesome ways if they happened to accidentally mention some aspect of Catholic teaching. (Bloody and nasty execution is one of the punishments mentioned in the email message about this that’s been plaguing the internet for years.) The English Reformation, which ended the State’s relationship with the Catholic Church, began in the early 1530s but took a long time to become complete (arguably in 1558, under Queen Elizabeth I), and it was extremely complicated. For the next two centuries, restrictions on Catholics and the extent to which those laws were enforced, waxed and waned considerably. Catholics often went through long periods with hardly any serious restrictions or punishments at all. And these specific legal restrictions on Catholics were gradually eliminated over those centuries. By the time of “Catholic Emancipation in 1829” mentioned in your nutty uncle’s email, the only significant restriction on English Catholics that was still enforced was that they couldn’t sit in the House of Commons. That was eliminated by the 1829 Act (which also repealed several other restrictions that were technically still on the books, but had been ignored for a long time). 

Enough historicizing about English history, Professor, I hear you saying, get back to the song. OK, here goes. In the first place, there is no historical evidence whatsoever that The 12 Days of Christmas served a secret purpose for Catholics. But if it had served a secret purpose, Professor, I also hear you saying, there wouldn’t be any written evidence. The problem with that argument is that there was plenty of written Catholic doctrinal material floating around and between English Catholics more or less freely since 1715 (and lots of that evidence survives).

But perhaps the strongest evidence that The 12 Days of Christmas wasn’t a secret Catholic teaching aid lies in the connections between the gifts mentioned in the song and the corresponding religious elements in the urban legends flying around the internet. Nothing that the 12 Days of Christmas gifts are supposed to refer to is distinctly Catholic, as in, different from Anglican Protestantism. Let me remind you of the super-secret code that only Catholics were supposed to know.

1 Partridge = the Christian God
2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments 
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues 
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists 
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament 
6 Geese a-laying = the six days of creation 
7 Swans a-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments 
8 Maids a-milking = the eight beatitudes mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit 
10 Lords a-leaping = the Ten Commandments 
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven apostles 
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed

The thing is, Buzzkillers, Catholics and Protestants in England all believed in exactly these same things. They are identical for both denominations, at least in terms of what they are called. Although each denomination used a different version of the Bible, both versions contained these things. Having to cover up “the Old and New Testaments” with the secret code of “2 Turtle Doves” wouldn’t be specific enough. Any Catholic child caught “learning” that there were “Old and New Testaments” would be indistinguishable from a Protestant child knowing the same thing. It’d be hard for the authorities to figure out which kid’s head to chop off for being religiously impure.

If “3 French Hens” referred to the Catholic version of the Holy Trinity, or if the “Partridge in a Pear Tree” was code for “The Pope,” then they might have had something. But you don’t exactly have to be a code-breaker to realize that “4 Calling Birds” referring to “the Four Gospels” isn’t going to fool anyone. It’d be as if JFK’s code word for “missiles” during the Cuban Missile Crisis was “long-range rockets.” Even baldy Khrushchev would have seen right through that one.

The 12 Days of Christmas is a great song, and it’s fun to sing, especially with kids. But it’s just that, and that alone — a song. So where did we get this nutty story that your paranoid relatives spread?

Apparently, Hugh McKellar, a Canadian teacher and librarian with a passion for hymns, published an article entitled, “How to Decode the Twelve Days of Christmas” in 1979, laying out the basics of the “12-Days-of-Christmas-as-Secret-Catholic-Teaching” idea. But he only _suggested_ the idea that the 12 Days of Christmas gifts might be used to teach children about the most important parts of Christian thinking. The kernel of McKellar’s idea was watered by Father Hal Stockert, who wrote an article along similar lines in 1982. But the myth really flowered when another priest, Father James Gilhooley, published an article with the absolutely yummy, grassy-knoll-conspiracy-sounding title, “Those Wily Jesuits: If you think ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ is just a song, think again.” It appeared in the Catholic magazine, Our Sunday Visitor, in 1992. Note the year…

…because you know what else happened in the early 1990s, Buzzkillers. The internet and email happened. And the story spread like, well, like a fantastically improbable historical myth. But that’s all it is, a myth. Unless that is, you want to hold a wild and boozy 12 Days of Christmas party, complete with drummers drumming, pipers piping, lords-a-leaping, and ladies dancing. Just make sure to invite the one and only partridge in a pear tree nesting in your heart — that’s me, Buzzkillers. I’ll bring the French hens and the turtle doves, and I’ll keep my mouth shut.

Buzzkill Bookshelf:

The New Oxford Book of Carols

The most comprehensive collection of Christmas carols ever assembled, spanning seven centuries of caroling in Britain, continental Europe, and North America.

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