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Is 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' an Underground Catechism Song?

Forwarded text purports to reveal hidden meaning behind the lyrics


12 Days of Christmas Song

Twelve Days of Christmas

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Viral message purports to reveal the true origin and secret meaning of 'The Twelve Days of Christmas,' namely that it was composed as an 'underground catechism song' for persecuted Catholics in Protestant England.

Description: Viral text / Forwarded email
Circulating since: 1990s
Status: Dubious (see details below)

Email text contributed by Brandi D., Dec. 21, 2000:

12 Days of Christmas

There is one Christmas Carol that has always baffled me. What in the world do leaping lords, French hens, swimming swans, and especially the partridge who won't come out of the pear tree have to do with Christmas? Today I found out at a ladies luncheon its origin. From 1558 until 1829, Roman Catholics in England were not permitted to practice their faith openly. Someone during that era wrote this carol 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 partridge in a pear tree was Jesus Christ.

* Two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments

* Three French hens stood for faith, hope and love.

* 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.

* Seven swans a-swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit - Prophesy, Serving, Teaching, Exhortation, Contribution, Leadership, and Mercy.

* The eight maids a-milking were the eight beatitudes.

* Nine ladies dancing were the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit-Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self Control.

* The ten lords a-leaping were the ten commandments.

* The eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful disciples.

* The twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in the Apostles' Creed.

So there is your history for today. This knowledge was shared with me and I found it interesting and enlightening and now I know how that strange song became a Christmas Carol... so pass it on if you wish.

Analysis: Though no one is quite sure how old the lyrics to "The Twelve Days of Christmas" really are, they were already considered "traditional" by the time the rhyme was first published around 1780. The theory that it originated as an "underground catechism song" for oppressed Catholics appears to be quite modern, however. It was first proposed by Canadian English teacher and part-time hymnologist Hugh D. McKellar in an article entitled "How to Decode the Twelve Days of Christmas," published in 1979. McKellar expanded on the idea in a monograph for the scholarly journal The Hymn in 1994.

The notion was further popularized by a Catholic priest, Fr. Hal Stockert, who summarized the theory in an article he wrote in 1982 and posted online in 1995. Unlike McKellar, who cited no sources and said his first intimations of a hidden meaning in "The Twelve Days of Christmas" came from personal conversations with elderly Canadians with roots in northern England, Stockert claimed he had happened upon the information in "primary documents," including "letters from Irish priests, mostly Jesuits, writing back to the motherhouse at Douai-Rheims, in France, mentioning this purely as an aside." Those sources remain unverified.

However it came about, Stockert and McKellar published virtually identical interpretations of "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Only the latter admitted how personal, even speculative, the process was. "I can at most report what this song's symbols have suggested to me in the course of four decades," McKellar wrote in 1994. Stockert offered no such disclaimers.

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