Most of us probably know the 12 Days of Christmas as a carol about increasingly grandiose gifts given at each passing day, but in the Christian faith, the feast commemorates the Nativity of Jesus Christ, the savior who entered the world of man in profound humility.
The 12 Days of Christmas, also known as Twelvetide, is celebrated differently by various denominations, cultures, and nations. Most Western ecclesiastical traditions, however, acknowledge the 25th of Dec. as the First day of Christmas. Hence, the feast is celebrated from Christmas Day to the 5th of January.
While some Christian denominations see Twelvetide as identical to Christmastide, for most, such as the Roman Catholic Church, the Christmas season lasts longer than just 12 days. Several feasts are celebrated within that time, apart from Christmas, there is New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, the Solemnity of Mary, and more, ending on the feast of the Epiphany.
As a carol, the 12 Days of Christmas, may appear as a song about lavish gifts, but author Anna Ball believes that there are religious connations attached. In her book, titled "Handbook of Catholic Sacramentals," she enumerates the symbolism behind the gifts bestowed on each day of Twelvetide.
According to the author, the two turtle doves symbolize the Old and New Testaments while the three French hens represent faith, hope, and love. The four calling birds refer to the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the five golden rings stand for the first five books of the Old Testament, which narrates the fall of man and God's act of love in sending his only son as a savior.
Additionally, Ball claims that the six geese refer to the six days of creation, while the seven swans represent the seven spiritual gifts of the Holy Spirit. The eight maids represent the eight beatitudes; the nine ladies dancing stand for the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit; the ten lords refer to the Ten Commandments; the eleven pipers for the eleven faithful Apostles; and the twelve drummers for the twelve points of the Apostles' Creed.
The carol is believed to have originated in 1558-1829 England, a time where Roman Catholics were persecuted for practicing their faith. And the song was meant to teach young Catholics of their faith.