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Christmas Tales: Is '12 Days of Christmas’ Carol Actually a Coded Message?

What does a 'partridge in a pear tree' really mean?

It’s one of the most popular Christmas carols but also one of the most confounding. Why exactly would anyone want to give their true love “eight maids a-milking?”

But that’s just what the writer of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” penned.

Well, maybe.

The song tracks the gifts a person give his or her true love over 12 days, starting with the always appreciated partridge in a pear tree and wrapping up with 12 drummers drumming. It seems a bizarre list of gifts, but it made more sense when it was written several hundred years.

Well, probably not. Let’s face it, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a head scratcher. Sure, it’s fun to sing, but when you really think about the lyrics, you have to question the entire song.

A popular story behind the tune goes back to the 16th century when Queen Elizabeth of England really went after the Catholics, persecuting them to the point that admitting you were Catholic or even suspected of being a Catholic meant torture and death. England had shifted to Protestantism over Catholicism in favor of the Anglican church.

Despite the dire consequences they faced, many Catholics still held onto their beliefs, even passing them down to their children. But they couldn’t do it publicly.

So, according to a popular story, English Catholics of the 16th century devised coded ways to pass on their teachings. One secret message was “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “How does a ‘partridge in a pear tree’ or ‘three French hens’ equate to anything Biblical? Those who subscribe to this origin story point out that you can't look at what the lyrics mean in today's world; you have to see them via a 16th century English perspective.

The partridge in a pear tree, as the theory goes, represents God's true love in Christ Jesus, who gave his life for everyone. An adult partridge will attempt to lead predators away from a nest of eggs or hatchlings by making itself seem like an easier meal. The French hens, according to one writer, were the food of the rich. And, in the song, they represent the gifts of the three wisemen.

Another theory says the three French hens refer to the Holy Trinity: God the Father, the son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

The "four calling birds" are code for the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. While the "five golden rings" symbolize the five Old Testament books, which were considered law: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

It continues with each of the 12 gifts symbolizing Biblical and faith-based beliefs, tenets, or teachings. Many of these as laid out by this theory are also shared across Christian denominations, not strictly Catholicism.

Critics of this theory, however, point out that there's little historical documentation that supports it. Plus, they add, the coded symbols have no true relationship with the items they represent, making it very difficult, if not impossible, for people to decode them.

Instead, they argue that the lyrics stem from a memory game in which the leader says a verse and each of the other players repeats it. Then, the leader adds another one, requiring the players to recite it with the first one — and so on and so forth. The “12 days of Christmas” might be the days after Christmas up until the Epiphany.

The song reportedly first appeared in the 1780's book "Mirth Without Mischief," though it existed well before that publication. Some of the references in the book lead people to believe the song was of French origin, not English. Which brings up a problem: French hens were not introduced to England until the late 1770s, which makes it unlikely that English Catholics were familiar with the fowl.

Since the publication of "Mirth Without Mischief,” the song has appeared in many forms with different words, though all still follow “The Twelve Days of Christmas" theme.

Another conundrum: There was a song dating to at least the early 1600s that did use religious meanings with each of the 12 days of Christmas. "A New Dial" was a question-and-response song.

In answer to ”What are they that are but one?" was ”We have one God alone; In heaven above sits on His Throne."

"What are they which are by two?" is answered with "Two testaments, the old and new; We do acknowledge to be true."

And it continues in that manner for a total of 12 questions and responses.

I can’t tell you for sure the origins of "The Twelve Days of Christmas.” What I can tell you is I still get lost after eight maids a-milking. I can't remember if it's time for the lords to start leaping or the pipers to get piping.

But, it turns out, it's neither. The nine ladies need to dance.

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