One of our family’s favorite legends is the explanation of how “The Twelve Days of Christmas” may have been composed. The legend says that in 16th-century England, wicked leaders prevented many Christians from practicing their religion. During that period, a royal decree forced those who did not embrace a particular religious ideology to take their worship into hiding. Violation of the laws of the time could result in severe punishment, even death.
But these persecuted, humble followers of Christ are believed to have found a secret way to express their adoration for our Savior. By carefully hiding doctrinal teaching in cleverly crafted, seemingly harmless lyrics, they could conceal a coded message of their belief and faith. So the “true love” in the song is actually thought to be Christ, who provides all that is essential in this life for His faithful followers. And the twelve days of Christmas are the days between Christmas and Epiphany, the day when the Magi, according to legend, are believed to have found the Christ Child.
For most people, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a silly song that simply mentions a series of extravagant gifts that a lovesick man or woman gives to his or her beloved at Christmastime. However, when you seek Christ, even this amusing little Christmas song can transform into a stunning, symbolic message and testimony of the Savior.
A Partridge in a Pear Tree
The mother partridge is known for her selfless sacrifice. When confronted with a mortal enemy, the mother bird will quickly sacrifice herself and protect her chicks by luring the enemy away. Think of Jesus and His selfless sacrifice to save us from sin and death. If the partridge represents Jesus, the pear tree must certainly represent the cross on which he hung. In the song’s very first gift, we can discern the voluntary, atoning sacrifice of our Lord.
Two Turtle Doves
Think of the universal symbol of a dove. Doves commonly represent truth and peace. Christians find both truth and peace in the teachings found in the Old and New Testament. The two turtledoves remind us of the love we feel from Jehovah (Christ) of the Old Testament and Jesus (Christ) of the New Testament. We find the doves of truth and peace in our knowledge of God and in His eternal plan of salvation as found in the holy scriptures.
Three French Hens
This once-expensive item represents food fit for a king. The three French hens may remind us of the very expensive gifts that the Magi provided for the Christ Child: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Just as the Magi offered Christ their best, most expensive gifts, the song can remind us that we too should give our very best, most valuable gifts to serve and honor Christ.
Four Calling Birds
Birds use their God-given voices to call out warnings that will save the lives of their families and friends. The four calling birds in the song may represent the four Gospel writers that continually call us to the safety and protection we find in being faithful followers of Christ. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John call out their warning for all to come unto Christ.
Five Gold Rings
Consider five beautiful golden rings. They are of great value. They are desirable. They are in the shape of eternity. The five gold rings might symbolize the law of the Old Testament, or the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah. The five rings can bind us eternally to Christ if we choose to accept and cherish Him and His commandments found there.
Six Geese a-Laying
Think of six geese laying eggs, or creating new life. Now reflect on the six days used to create the earth. The Lord created the world in six creative periods referred to as days, and He rested on the seventh. Since eggs are a clear symbol of creation and life, the six geese a-laying might be representative of the six creative periods. From the six geese-a-laying, we learn to accept Christ as the Creator of the earth.
Seven Swans a-Swimming
Think of the beauty and grace of a swimming swan. Now compare that to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit that Paul writes of in Romans 12:6–8. The seven swans in the song may represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit that come to us through the Holy Ghost. They include prophesy, ministering or service, teaching, preaching or exhorting, simple giving, presiding or leadership with diligence, and mercy with cheerfulness. The seven gifts of the Spirit can enable us to be like the seven swimming swans—graceful creatures who reflect the Savior’s love and goodness.
Eight Maids a-Milking
Consider the job of the milkmaid in ancient times. Hers was one of the most humble of all the tasks performed in the Lord’s manor. Now think of the eight beatitudes that the Savior taught in His Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5. The milkmaid can be a reminder of the meekness and humility reflected in the eight beatitudes. The eight maids a-milking can remind us to be humble, faithful followers of Christ and His word.
Nine Ladies Dancing
Picture nine graceful ladies dancing in total unison and harmony. Now ponder the fruits of the Spirit as referenced in Galatians 5:22–23. These graceful dancing ladies in the song well represent the fruits of the Spirit that include love, joy, peace, longsuffering or patience, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance or self-restraint. These fruits of the Spirit and Christlike attributes will help us to become like the Savior.
Ten Lords a-Leaping
Think of the term "lord." The lord of the English manor was a man of honor and the final voice of authority in any decision made there. Hence, the ten lords a-leaping might represent the Ten Commandments of our Lord and the governing influence that these commandments should be in our lives (see Exodus 20). As we obey the Ten Commandments, we can show our love for and devotion to Christ (see John 14:15).
Eleven Pipers Piping
Of the Twelve Apostles, eleven remained faithful to the end. Each of these spent their lives in service of the Master. The eleven faithful Apostles followed the Lord’s charge to proclaim the gospel to all men. They did not become a quorum of twelve again until Mathias was called (see Acts 1). The eleven pipers piping can remind us that we must all be missionaries that spread the gospel throughout the world and invite others to come unto Christ (see Matthew 28:19–20).
Twelve Drummers Drumming
The final gift of twelve drummers drumming may represent the apostolic creed taught to many Christian children. Its twelve points of doctrine span the birth, life, and teachings of Christ, including His Resurrection. As we study the life of Christ, we will become more like Him and will be prepared for eternal life.