It’s a common claim among Catholics these days that the English Christmas carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a secret code for Catholic teachings, used when Catholicism was illegal in England.
But is that really true?
First, here’s what is commonly claimed: Catholicism was illegal in England from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and the song was a mini-catechism to help teach the faith secretly to Catholic children.
Here’s what the different gifts supposedly symbolize:
- Partridge in a Pear Tree = Jesus Christ
- 2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments
- 3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
- 4 Calling Birds = The Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
- 5 Golden Rings = The Pentateuch, the first Five Books of the Old Testament
- 6 Geese A-laying = The six days of creation
- 7 Swans A-swimming = The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit
- 8 Maids A-milking = The eight beatitudes
- 9 Ladies Dancing = The nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
- 10 Lords A-leaping = The ten commandments
- 11 Pipers Piping = The eleven faithful apostles
- 12 Drummers Drumming = The twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed
Note that some versions of the theory have slightly different interpretations of the code.
While it’s true that Catholicism was illegal in England during that time period, and as fun as it would be for the song to be a secret code, there are some significant problems with this theory:
1) None of these doctrines are unique to Catholicism
All twelve of these things are found in Anglicanism, so there would be no need to teach these things secretly.
2) It’s not clear how the song would aid in catechizing
The song simply counts from 1 to 12, with an item for each number. It’s not clear how most of the gifts are symbolically connected to the supposed doctrines. E.g., does “three french hens” help someone remember that the theological virtues are “faith, hope, and love,” or any other doctrine that involves the number three? It’s not clear how simply counting from 1 to 12 helps memorize these things.
3) The theory originated in the late 20th century
This is probably the strongest mark against the theory. The theory originated from a few speculative articles written the 1970s and 1980s. If the song really had this meaning, you’d expect there to be some record of it from around the time period when it was used. But there isn’t.