Where the world comes to study the Bible

A Christmas Song For All Year Long

by
Timothy J. Ralston, Th.M., Ph.D.

This article was used with permission by Kindred Spirit Magazine. For questions you may contact their editor, Sandy Glahn at her email .

"On the first day of Christmas my true love..." When I was young it was a cute Christmas song. Getting all those gifts in right order at breakneck speed was the annual challenge. (I rarely succeeded. But then no one else did either.)

Then I grew older (and more spiritually intense). It became another secular mockery of sacred themes. It joined my collection of Yuletide debris discarded in an attic steamer trunk. Recently rummaging through my memories I found the chest with its song inside just as I'd left it.

I think I was wrong. I've missed a most wonderful gift, wrapped and given to me by those who followed Jesus before me.

Who wrote it? No one knows. But it's been around for a long time. Although I couldn't speak to its author, I could start with two facts. First, the twelve days are the period between the differing celebrations of Christmas-December 25 (in the Western church) and January 6 (in the Eastern church).

Second, people living when it was written commonly wrote, painted, and thought using symbols to express what they meant. All those birds and people are probably much more than they seem. (It certainly isn't a coded list of significant biblical numbers. That probably confuses it with a similar song called "In Those Twelve Days".) So I started looking. Here's what I found.

In the Middle Ages birds were symbols of a human being, the soul, and each bird had specific associations. But the birds in the song had interesting Christian connections.

  • The partridge was always associated with Jesus' birth. More than that, so was the pear tree. So the song begins with a double-image of the Nativity!
  • Since I'm thinking of Jesus' birth, "two turtle doves" brought to mind Jesus' presentation at Mary's purification (Luke 2:21-24) and the Spirit's descent upon him after his baptism at the start of his public ministry (Luke 3:21-22).
  • "French hens," symbols of self-sacrifice and care, are reminiscent of Jesus' role as the Good Shepherd to his own while he was among them.
  • "Calling birds"? One author suggested it might originally be "colley birds," that is, blackbirds. (Unfortunately I haven't found anything on their symbolism…yet.)
  • Since it's Christmas, the "five gold rings" aren't jewelry. Instead they remind us of golden ring-necked pheasants that were often associated with Nativity scenes (as can be seen in Fra Angelico's Nativity) as well as a royalty (suggesting Jesus' Messianic role) and the promise of life that rises from the ashes of death.
  • "Geese" (whether white or gray) symbolized spiritual vigilance, avoidance of worldly pleasures, wholehearted devotion to Godly obedience. Sounds like Jesus again.
  • "Seven swans" bring the opening series to a climax. Swans, always associated with royalty and prophecy, were thought to know the hour of their death and announce their death with a great cry ("swan song"), thereby earning them an enduring association with Christ's work on the cross. Then add the biblical nuance of seven suggesting a completed work, and the connection to the cross is complete.

Boy, this was really interesting! If I'd lived 500 years ago, singing the first seven verses could be a powerful reminder of my Savior, his life and work.

As anyone who sings this song knows, from here on you gotta hold on to your dentures! Momentum gathers with the last five gifts – all people. Lowly "milk maids" at work give way to dancing "ladies" and "lords" in ever-increasing displays of joy, followed by an orchestra of "pipers" and "drummers" to support the chorus, and rehearsed at a speed that carries me along in its grand celebration. What a wonderful way to celebrate the coming of our Savior!

Then I got out my calculator. How many gifts were there? If one arrives on the first day, three on the second, six on the third, …by the last day there's a grand total of 364 gifts. That's one for every day of the year!

Now at last I understood. "My True Love" was no mere earthly lover but my Heavenly Father. The gift of His Son was sufficient for every day of my year.

The irony? Everybody, even my fellow Christians, think it's only a secular song. They even enjoy the lusty singing of its parodies – like "The Twelve Days After Christmas – to mock at the corruption of the holiday. They don't understand why I can't laugh and sing it with them anymore. As Laurence Stookey, Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), p. 177, notes: "Misinterpretations and secularization of this old text in the recent revival of its use probably reveal more about our loss of theological awareness that we care to admit."

No, I don't expect to hear The Twelve Days of Christmas in a Sunday worship service this season. That's not where it was created or where it belongs. Instead listen for my voice some July afternoon, ringing out from a hot car or crowded street corner, celebrating the profound work of our Savior and the joy of his presence that fills my heart every day of the year!