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Magis Center December 25, 2022 5 min read

The Christian Meaning of the Twelve Days of Christmas

We hear Christmas carols everywhere during the holiday season—in supermarkets, department stores, town squares, and in our cars. With each passing year, it seems we begin to hear them earlier and earlier (in some places, as early as Halloween).

Of course, with the frequency with which they are played every year, everyone has their favorites. Perhaps the rhythmic “Little Drummer Boy”? Maybe the soft “Silent Night”? Or the chaotic “Christmas Can-Can”? From the classics to the modern hits, every Christmas carol has its own special meaning (and history). One of the most fascinating is the “Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Its lyrics to its history are a cause to sign with your loved ones around your Christmas tree during the twelve days of Christmas—beginning, of course, on December 25th and ending on the Epiphany (January 6th)!

Twelve Days of Christmas History

The melody we know today as the “Twelve Days of Christmas” was written in 1909 by English composer Frederic Austin. While we do not know the original writer of the song, the lyrics have been thought to originate from the child's book, Mirth With-out Mischief.

The lyrics have changed from country to country and over time, but the use of the song (or sometimes a chant) during a specific time of history is where the Christian meaning enters the music. 

From 1558 to 1829, Catholics were greatly persecuted in England for practicing their faith. Writings and verbal infractions were not just punishable by fines, you could also be hanged.

During this dark time in history, the “Twelve Days of Christmas” became a mode for the faithful to practice their religion. It was even better than young ones could easily recall the song and learn the meaning of each day. Teaching all that the “true love” is not that of earthly affection, but instead, is that of God. 

The Twelve Drummers Drumming 

The “twelve drummer drumming,” received on the twelfth day of Christmas, is the representation of the twelve points of belief in The Apostles’ Creed.

The Apostles’ Creed states:

  1. I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
  2. I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.
  3. I believe He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
  4. I believe He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
  5. I believe He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again.
  6. I believe He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
  7. I believe He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
  8. I believe in the Holy Spirit.
  9. I believe in the holy Catholic Church and the communion of saints.
  10. I believe in the forgiveness of sins.
  11. I believe in the resurrection of the body.
  12. I believe in the life everlasting.

The Eleven Pipers Piping 

The gift received on the eleventh and twelfth day of Christmas, are the “eleven pipers piping,” which stands for the eleven faithful Apostles:

  1. Simon (whom He named Peter)
  2. Andrew
  3. James
  4. John
  5. Philip
  6. Bartholomew
  7. Matthew
  8. Thomas
  9. James son of Alphaeus
  10. Simon who was called the Zealot
  11. Judas son of James
  12. Judas Iscariot (who was later replaced with faithful Matthias)

The Ten Lords A-Leaping 

The gift received on the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth day of Christmas is the “ten lords a-leaping” which were to represent the Ten Commandments:

  1. Thou shall have no other gods before me
  2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image
  3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain
  4. Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy
  5. Honor thy father and mother
  6. Thou shalt not kill
  7. Thou shalt not commit adultery
  8. Thou shalt not steal
  9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor
  10. Thou shalt not covet

Nine Ladies Dancing 

The gift received on the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth day of Christmas is the “nine ladies dancing” who each represent one of the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit:

  1. Charity
  2. Joy
  3. Peace
  4. Forbearance
  5. Kindness
  6. Mildness
  7. Fidelity
  8. Modesty
  9. Chastity

The Eight Maids A-Milking 

The gift received on the eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth day of Christmas is the “eight maids a-milking” who represent the eight beatitudes from Matthew 5: 3-10:

  1. the poor is spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  2. those who mourn: for they shall be comforted.
  3. the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
  4. those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they shall be filled.
  5. the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
  6. the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
  7. the peacemakers: for they shall be called children of God.
  8. they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Seven Swans A-Swimming 

The gift received on the seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth day of Christmas is the “seven swans a-swimming” which represent the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit:

  1. Prophesy
  2. Serving
  3. Teaching
  4. Exhortation
  5. Contribution
  6. Leadership
  7. Mercy

The Six Geese A-Laying 

The gift received on the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth day of Christmas is the “six geese a-laying” which stand for the six days of creation in Genisis 1:

  1. God created the heavens and the earth
  2. God created the sky and seas
  3. God created the land and plants
  4. God created the sun, moon, and stars
  5. God created fish and birds
  6. God created land animals and man

The Five Golden Rings 

The gift received on the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth day of Christmas is the “five golden rings” which represent the first five books of the Old Testament—describing man's fall from the love of God into sin: 

  1. Genesis
  2. Exodus
  3. Leviticus
  4. Numbers
  5. Deuteronomy

The Four Calling Birds 

The gift received on the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth day of Christmas is the “four calling birds” which represent the four gospel writers and their gospels:

  1. Matthew
  2. Mark
  3. Luke
  4. John

The Three French Hens 

The gift received on the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth day of Christmas is the “three french hens” which represent the Holy Trinity:

  1. God the Father
  2. God the Son
  3. God the Holy Spirit

The Two Turtle Doves 

The gift received on the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth day of Christmas is the “two turtle doves” which represent the Testaments:

  1. The Old Testament
  2. The New Testament

A Partridge in a Pear Tree 

The gift received on the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth day of Christmas (and every day after) is the “partridge in a pear tree” which represents Jesus Christ.

This year at Christmas, may you relish in His gifts and find gratitude for the many blessings in your life. 

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Magis Center

The mission of the Magis Center is to create content that helps people find higher purpose in life, an awareness of their transcendent dignity, a sense of the transcendent providential power who guides them, and a determination to live ethically responsible lives. To that end, the Magis Center produces and distributes media that provides contemporary commentary on timeless topics.