The image pictures a rather well-known Christmas carol – “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. You’ve listened to this carol for years and probably wondered what do swimming swans and leaping lords have to do with Christmas? Once you understand the origin of the song, it truly has a Christian meaning. In the late 1500’s following the Reformation, there were efforts to outlaw the Christian faith in some countries. This caused the Church, in those countries, to go underground. To hide the important elements of their teaching (which at that time were illegal), Christian leaders composed poems that seemed innocent to most, but had a hidden meaning – they included the important teachings of the Christian Church. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is said to be one of these teaching tools. Most people think of Christmas as a day. It’s actually a season. It goes from the birth of Jesus on December 25 until January 5. For hundreds of years the Christmas season didn’t begin until Christmas Eve and didn’t end until the visit of the Magi (January 6).
On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me . . . a partridge in a pear tree. The partridge in a pear tree represents Jesus, the Son of God, whose birthday we celebrate on the first day of Christmas. Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge, a bird that will die to protect its young.
On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me . . . two turtledoves. These twin birds represent the Old and New Testaments. So in this gift, the singer finds the complete story of the Christian faith and God’s plan for the world. The doves are the biblical roadmap that is available to everyone.
On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me . . . three French hens. These birds represent faith, hope, and love. This gift hearkens back to 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter written by the apostle Paul.
On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me . . . four calling birds. One of the easiest facets of the song’s code to figure out, these fowl represent the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me . . . five gold rings. The gift of the rings represents the first five books of the Old Testament, known as the Torah or the Pentateuch.
On the sixth day of Christmas my true love gave to me . . . six geese a-laying. These lyrics can be traced back to the first story found in the Bible. Each egg is a day in creation, a time when the world was “hatched” or formed by God.
On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me . . . seven swans a-swimming. It would take someone quite familiar with the Bible to identify this gift. Hidden in the code are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion. As swans are one of the most beautiful and graceful creatures on earth, they would seem to be a perfect symbol for the spiritual gifts.
On the eighth day of Christmas my true love gave to me . . . eight maids a-milking. As Christ came to save even the lowest of the low, this gift represents the ones who would receive his Word and be saved by his grace. Being a milkmaid was about the worst job one could have in England during this period; this code conveyed that Jesus cared as much about servants as he did those of royal blood. The eight who were blessed included the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
On the ninth day of Christmas my true love gave to me . . . nine ladies dancing. These nine dancers were really the gifts known as the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23. The fruits are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
On the tenth day of Christmas my true love gave to me . . . ten lords a-leaping. This is probably the easiest gift to understand. As lords were judges and in charge of the law, this code for the Ten Commandments was fairly straightforward to Christians.
On the eleventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me . . . eleven pipers piping. This is almost a trick question, as most think of the disciples in terms of a dozen. But when Judas betrayed Jesus and committed suicide, there were only eleven men who carried out the gospel message.
On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me . . . twelve drummers drumming. The final gift is tied directly to the Christian Church. The drummers are the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles’ Creed. “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.”
Over these 12 days, we will be sharing a devotion on the true Christian meaning of each of the 12 days, expanding on the summary above. We pray that these devotions will help us continue to focus on the meaning of our Savior’s birth throughout the 12 days of Christmas and beyond.