US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Christmas myth debunked

| Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

For a few Christmases, our extremely unmusical family would attempt to sing "The 12 Days of Christmas." It was painful to listen to, but it inevitably turned into a good opportunity for laughter—such as when my Polish grandmother sang "three Polish hens" rather than French hens.

Turns out we could have been making a mockery of a secret Catholic catechetical tool. An e-mail forward claims the infamous song was used by Catholics oppressed by the British to teach the faith, though a quick Internet search shows that the origin of "The 12 Days of Christmas" is uncertain. says this claim is "likely the invention of modern speculation" and lists several of the reasons that made me a bit skeptical when I first read it.
I wasn't sure that Catholics would have to cloak their belief in Jesus as the partridge in the pear tree among Anglicans.  Most of the "lessons" in "The 12 Days of Christmas" are common across denomination. further points out that it's hard to find a time in history that Christians across the board were persecuted for their faith and would have to keep their teachings secret.

The other big issue I saw was that I couldn't figure out the connection between each item and what it supposedly represented, besides the number. Usually such memory tools would be symbolic or would at least share the first letter. also says that there is discrepancy in what each item could represent. Are my grandma's three Polish hens the Trinity, the gifts of the magi, or faith, hope, and love?

Still, looking at what each item might represent is an interesting way to see the song a new, and the idea that God is our "True Love" is appealing to me, especially considering the ridiculousness of all those gifts (see the PNC Price of Christmas Index for a literal take on the song).  This article points out that the history isn't as important as what we take the song to mean today and offers devotionals for each day of the Christmas season.

Nobody knows the true origin of the song, so take what you will from it. "The 12 Days of Christmas" can be as spiritual as you wish, or it simply can make for some great family memories as well. Have a merry musical Christmas!

(Picture of ornaments from here.)