According to popular tradiiton, Roman Catholics in England were not permitted to practice their faith openly from 1558 until 1829. During that era this carol was written as a catechism song for young Catholics. It has two levels of meaning: the surface meaning plus a hidden meaning known only to members of their church. Each element in the carol has a code word for a religious reality which the children could remember:
The Twelve Days of Christmas
The partridge in a pear tree was Jesus Christ. A partridge often feigns injury to draw attention to herself and away from her young to protect them from danger. Because of its self sacrifice the partridge was used to represent Christ.
Two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments. Because they have one mate for life the turtle doves represent enduring relationships, such as the unbreakable bond between the Old and New Testaments.
Three French hens stood for the Holy Trinity-Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The four calling birds were the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke & John.
The five golden rings recalled the Torah or Law,the first five books of the Old Testament.
The six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation. (Eggs represent new life)
Seven swans a-swimming represented the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit-Prophecy, Service, Teaching, Encouragement, Giving, Leadership, and Mercy.
The eight maids a-milking stand for the eight beatitudes which Jesus gave in the Sermon on the Mount to spell out blessings for the meek and lowly.
Nine ladies dancing represent the fruit of the Spirit-Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self Control.
The ten lords a-leaping stand for the law and leadership symbolised by the Ten Commandments.
The eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven disciples who remained faithful to Christ.
The twelve drummers drumming represented the twelve points of belief in the Apostles' Creed.
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