Hughes' tale also illustrates the variability of the lyric itself — "a partridge and a pear tree," "three fat hens," "four ducks quacking," etc. And while I'm sure some sort of religious meaning could be extracted from each of those phrases, Hughes' divergent rendition, not to mention other pesky variants down through the years, undermine McKellar and Stockert's Catholic interpretation. (For example, many pre-20th-century versions I've seen say "canary birds," and others opt for "colly birds" or "collie birds," an archaic name for blackbirds, where the modern version lists "calling birds," a symbol, according to McKellar and Stockert, of the four gospels.)
Far from finding any religious significance in "The Twelve Days of Christmas," some scholars, including University of Massachusetts classics professor Edward Phinney, argue that it's first and foremost a love song. "If you think of all the things being presented," he said in a 1990 newspaper interview, "you realize they're all gifts from a lover to a woman. Some of them are rather impossible to give, like eight maids a milking and nine ladies dancing. All those ladies and dancing and pipers and drums imply this is a wedding."
And then, of course, there are the decidedly un-biblical fertility symbols — the partridge in a pear tree, for example. "The pear is equivalent to the heart and the partridge is a famous aphrodisiac," Phinney said. And how about those six geese a-laying! Seven of the song's 12 verses feature birds of various kinds, Phinney observed, all of them symbols of fertility. "The whole song seems to me to point to a festival of joy and love more appropriate to a secular holiday like Valentine's Day or May Day than a religious holiday," he said.
Codes and catechisms
Do we know for a fact that "underground" catechism songs for Catholics were common, or even existed at all during or after the English Reformation? The evidence for it is slim. Hugh McKellar mentions a few examples of accumulative catechism songs ("Green grow the rushes, O," and "Go where I send thee") and "coded" nursery rhymes ("Sing a song of sixpence" and "Rock-a-by, baby"), but none of them really qualify in terms of being both underground (i.e., having a hidden meaning) and Catholic. If there were other songs that fit the bill, McKellar failed to cite them. Stockert didn't try.
Is it impossible that the "The Twelve Days of Christmas" could have originated as a religious song whose covert meaning was simply forgotten by the mid-1800s? No, but William Studwell, for one, still doesn't buy it. "If there was such a catechism device, a secret code, it was derived from the original secular song," he told the Religion News Service. "It's a derivative, not the source."
Sources and further reading:
• "10 Minutes with ... William Studwell." Religion News Service, 1 December 2008.
• Eckenstein, Lina. Comparative Studies in Nursery Rhymes. London: Duckworth, 1906.
• Fasbinder, Joe. "There's a Reason for All Those Birds." Southeast Missourian, 12 December 1990.
• Harmon, Elizabeth. "Carols Become the Subject of Serious Study." Daily Herald, 24 December 1998.
• Hughes, Thomas. The Ashen Faggot: A Tale of Christmas. Macmillan's magazine, vol. 5, 1862.
• Kelly, Joseph F. The Origins of Christmas. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2004.
• McKellar, Hugh D. "How to Decode the Twelve Days of Christmas." U.S. Catholic, December 1979.
• McKellar, Hugh D. "The Twelve Days of Christmas." The Hymn, October 1994.
• Stockert, Fr. Hal. "The Twelve Days of Christmas: An Underground Catechism." Catholic Information Network, 17 December 1995.
• Stockert, Fr. Hal. "Origin of the Twelve Days of Christmas." CatholicCulture.org, 15 December 2000.
Last updated 12/10/13