What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?

Few Christmas carols are as much fun to sing as "The 12 Days of Christmas." Each day, the gifts become more elaborate until a menagerie of people, animals, and objects have all been given to one very lucky true love. But there's more to this song than leaping lords and swimming swans. Some people think "The 12 Days of Christmas" is a religious song that carries veiled references to Catholic doctrines from a time when practicing the religion in Britain was illegal. The truth likely lies somewhere in between.

Historical Roots

Although the precise origins of the "The 12 Days of Christmas" are unclear, the first published version appeared in England in 1780. That first version was printed in a children's book as a rhyme, without music, that scholars say was intended as a memory game. Similar versions have also been found in the folk music traditions of Scotland, France, and the Faroe Islands dating from the same era.

Over the next 100-plus years, several variations of "The 12 Days of Christmas" were published in the United Kingdom, but it wasn't until the early 1900s that musical versions began to appear. The rendition that most people in the United States and United Kingdom sing today, with its drawn-out chorus of "five golden rings," was published in 1909 by British composer Frederic Austin.

A Secret Meaning?

In the late 20th century, two published works suggested that "The 12 Days of Christmas" was actually a religious song. In 1982, the Rev. Hal Stockert, a priest from Granville, N.Y., wrote an article (published online in 1995), claiming that the song had originally been used to teach children the true meaning of Christmas at a time when practicing Catholicism was illegal in Britain (1558–1829). Hugh D. McKellar, a Canadian musicologist, published a similar thesis, "How to Decode the Twelve Days of Christmas," in 1994. 

According to Stockert, the days had the following hidden Catholic meanings: 

  • 1 partridge in a pear tree: Jesus Christ, the Son of God
  • 2 turtledoves: the Old and New Testaments
  • 3 French hens: the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity
  • 4 calling birds: the four gospels and/or the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)
  • 5 golden rings: 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 and/or the seven sacraments
  • 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 11 faithful disciples (minus Judas, who betrayed Christ)
  • 12 drummers drumming: the 12 points of doctrine in the Apostles' Creed

However, despite the claims of Stockert and McKellar, little to no historical evidence exists to support their arguments. The debunking website Snopes.com has also published a detailed article on this refutation.

The Real 12 Days of Christmas

In Christian tradition, the true 12 days of Christmas is a holy time of celebration. The period begins Christmas Day and concludes Jan. 6 with Epiphany. Each of the feasts that are celebrated during this period deepens the real meaning of Christmas itself. You can learn more about this time of celebration below.

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The First Day

A partridge in a pear tree. (Stockbyte/Getty Images)
Stockbyte/Getty Images

The first day of Christmas is, of course, Christmas Day, the Nativity of Jesus Christ. In the Christian tradition, it is preceded by Advent, a time of preparation and celebration for the 12 days of Christmas.

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The Second Day of Christmas

Mosaic of Saint Stephen, Protomartyer
St. Stephen Walbrook church interior, City of London, Mosaic of Saint Stephen, tiled floor. Neil Holmes/Getty Images

On the second day of Christmas, we celebrate the feast of Saint Stephen, deacon and martyr, the first Christian to die for his faith in Christ. For that reason, he is often called the protomartyr (the first martyr). Likewise, he is often called protodeacon, because he is the first of the deacons mentioned in the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.

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The Third Day of Christmas

Close-up of a mural of a saint on a wall, John the Evangelist, Patmos, Dodecanese Islands, Greece
Glowimages/Getty Images

The third day celebrates the life of Saint John the Evangelist, called "the disciple whom Christ loved" and the only one of the Apostles not to die a martyr's death. He is honored as a martyr, though, for the incidents that he suffered while proclaiming the faith of Christ.

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The Fourth Day of Christmas

The Holy Innocents stained glass
The slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Stained glass window, Sacred Heart Basilica, Paray-le-Monial. Godong/Getty Images

The fourth day of Christmas honors the memory of the Holy Innocents, all of the young boys slaughtered at the command of King Herod when he hoped to kill the newborn Jesus.

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The Fifth Day of Christmas

Murder of Thomas Becket
Corbis via Getty Images/Getty Images

The fifth day celebrates the faith of Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, who was martyred for his defense of the rights of the church against King Henry II.

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The Sixth Day of Christmas

The Holy Family, St. Thomas More Catholic Church, Decatur, GA. (© flickr user andycoan; CC BY 2.0)

Flickr /andycoan/CC BY 2.0)

On the sixth day, the faithful celebrate the Holy Family: the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus; Saint Joseph, his foster father; and Christ himself. Together, they form the model for all Christian families.

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The Seventh Day of Christmas

Saint Silvester
Wikimedia Commons

The seventh day of Christmas celebrates the life of Saint Silvester, the pope who reigned during the incredibly tumultuous times of the Donatist schism and the Arian heresy in the fourth century.

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The Eighth Day of Christmas

An icon of the Theotokos, the Mother of God. (Photo © Slava Gallery, LLC; used with permission.)
Slava Gallery, LLC;

The eighth day falls on Jan. 1, and it honors the solemnity of Mary, mother of God. Faithful worshippers recite special prayers to honor the role that the Blessed Virgin Mary played in Christian salvation and devotion to Jesus Christ.

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The Ninth Day of Christmas

Mosaic of Byzantine fathers of the church.
The Byzantine Fathers of the Church, including Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen. Print Collector/Getty Images

On the ninth day of Christmas, the faithful celebrate two of the original Eastern Doctors of the Church: Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen. Both bore witness to the orthodox Christian teaching in the face of the Arian heresy.

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The 10th Day of Christmas

Sagrada Familia Basilica
Dan Herrick / Getty Images

On the 10th day, Christians venerate the holy name of Jesus, at which "every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" (Philippians 2:10–11).

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The 11th Day of Christmas

Medals for American Roman Catholic Saint
Medals of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

The 11th day honors Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774–1821), or Mother Seton as she is often known, who was the first native-born American saint.

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The 12th Day of Christmas

Philadelphia, Shrine of Saint John Neumann
Shrine of Saint John Neumann, Philadelphia. The body of the first U.S. Catholic saint lies beneath the altar. Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

On the final day of Christmas, the faithful celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, the day on which Christ's divinity was revealed to the Gentiles in the form of the Three Wise Men. It also commemorates the life of John Neumann (1811–1860), the first nonnative-born American saint.

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Your Citation
Richert, Scott P. "What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?" Learn Religions, Oct. 15, 2021, learnreligions.com/twelve-days-of-christmas-myths-reality-541551. Richert, Scott P. (2021, October 15). What Are the 12 Days of Christmas? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/twelve-days-of-christmas-myths-reality-541551 Richert, Scott P. "What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/twelve-days-of-christmas-myths-reality-541551 (accessed June 10, 2023).