In 16th Century England, it was a crime to be a Catholic. Catholics were forbidden to practice their faith publicly and privately. Throughout history, when Catholics were persecuted they found little traditions to practice their faith and to recognize other Catholics. Thus came along "The Twelve Days of Christmas" to help young Catholics remember the tenets of their faith without getting caught.
A Partridge in a Pear Tree - Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, whose birthday we celebrate on December 25, the first day of Christmas. The partridge represents the courage and devotion of Christ dying for his people. A mother partridge will lure predators away from her chicks, even sacrificing her life for them. The pear tree symbolizes the wooden cross upon which Jesus died. Recalling the expression of Christ's sadness over the fate of Jerusalem: "Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered you under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but you would not have it so . . . ." (Luke 13:34)
Two Turtle Doves - The Old and New Testaments, which together bear witness to God's self-revelation in history and the creation of a people to tell the Story of God to the world. Doves also symbolize truth and peace.
Three French Hens - French hens were the food of kings in sixteenth century England. Here they represent the expensive gifts brought by the wise men to the newborn Jesus. And the Three Theological Virtues: 1) Faith, 2) Hope, and 3) Love (1 Corinthians 13:13)
Four Calling Birds - The Four Gospels: 1) Matthew, 2) Mark, 3) Luke, and 4) John, which proclaim the Good News of God's reconciliation of the world to Himself in Jesus Christ.
Five Golden Rings - The first Five Books of the Old Testament, known as the Torah, the Pentateuch and as the Law of Moses.: 1) Genesis, 2) Exodus, 3) Leviticus, 4) Numbers, and 5) Deuteronomy, which gives the history of humanity's sinful failure and God's response of grace in the creation of a people to be a light to the world.
Six Geese A-laying - The six days of creation that confesses God as Creator and Sustainer of the world (Genesis 1). The eggs, from which new life springs, symbolize creation.
Seven Swans A-swimming - The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: 1) prophecy, 2) ministry, 3) teaching, 4) exhortation, 5) giving, 6) leading, and 7) compassion (Romans 12:6-8; cf. 1 Corinthians 12:8-11) The swan, a graceful bird, symbolized these virtues.
Eight Maids A-milking - The eight Beatitudes: 1) Blessed are the poor in spirit, 2) those who mourn, 3) the meek, 4) those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, 5) the merciful, 6) the pure in heart, 7) the peacemakers, 8) those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake. (Matthew 5:3-10) Being a milk maid was one of the lowest jobs in sixteenth century England. Jesus came to save the poor and the humble, thus this gift represents Jesus' love for the common people.
Nine Ladies Dancing - The nine Fruit of the Holy Spirit: 1) love, 2) joy, 3) peace, 4) patience, 5) kindness, 6) generosity, 7) faithfulness, 8) gentleness, and 9) self-control. (Galatians 5:22)
Ten Lords A-Leaping - The ten commandments: 1) You shall have no other gods before me; 2) Do not make an idol; 3) Do not take God's name in vain; 4) Remember the Sabbath Day; 5) Honor your father and mother; 6) Do not murder; 7) Do not commit adultery; 8) Do not steal; 9) Do not bear false witness; 10) Do not covet. (Exodus 20:1-17)
Eleven Pipers Piping - The eleven Faithful Apostles: 1) Simon Peter, 2) Andrew, 3) James, 4) John, 5) Philip, 6) Bartholomew, 7) Matthew, 8) Thomas, 9) James bar Alphaeus, 10) Simon the Zealot, 11) Judas bar James. (Luke 6:14-16). The list does not include the twelfth disciple, Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus to the religious leaders and the Romans.
Twelve Drummers Drumming - The twelve points of doctrine in the prayer Apostles' Creed: 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) He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. 4) He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. 5) On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. 6) He will come again to judge the living and the dead. 7) I believe in the Holy Spirit, 8) the holy Catholic Church, 9) the communion of saints, 10) the forgiveness of sins, 11) the resurrection of the body, 12) and life everlasting. The drummers may provide the cadence for reciting this prayer.
There is some controversy over the actual history of this song. Although, church historians have declared this account basically accurate. Some people say it originated in a children's book as a memory game. Some say it came from France many years before. Wherever the song came from, the song helps Christians to celebrate their heritage through one more tradition. When you hear this once thought secular nonsense song, will you be reminded of what it symbolizes.