I received an e-mail this week making the old claim that the “Twelve Days of Christmas” song has hidden religious meanings. The story goes that Catholics invented the song as a catechism in anti-Catholic England so they could secretly remember religious symbols. In this version, “a partridge in a pear tree” is a symbol for Christ (hanged on a tree). Each of the other days in the song is a reminder of another number (four gospels, three as the trinity, etc). Ever the skeptic, I decided to Google this story and discovered the claims about the song being related to Catholic persecution were false.
This Snopes article points out that the song appeared in an English book in 1780 but apparently has French origins. The song may have most likely been a memory game. This New York Times article discussing the controversy sounds skeptical that the song has any religious meaning at all.
I’m not convinced there are not some reasons to look deeper into the meanings in the song, however. The French origins for the song are still obscure, and it is possible it could have some religious meaning. This article points out there is religious symbolism behind the twelve days in the song, and, as Snopes points out, there is an older tradition of assigning religious meaning to the twelve days of Christmas. In this tradition, the number one (the first day of Christmas) refers to God, the number two to the Old and New Testaments, the number three to the Trinity, the number four to the Gospels, etc. Is it impossible to imagine that French Catholics took the 17th century tradition and applied it to a song about the Twelve Days of Christmas? Personally, I think not.
The research seems to conclude we simply don’t have enough information to know if the original French writers were completely secular or not. My take: please don’t pass on the internet rumor that the song is a result of Catholic persecution but if you’d like to find some deeper religious meaning in the song, well, you may be right.