12 Days of Christmas: An Underground Catechism Song?

Fact or Fiction?

The Real Meaning behind the 12 Days of Christmas

Partridge in a Pear Tree illustration  At one time, it was a crime to be Catholic.

During 1558 to 1829, Catholics in England were prohibited by law from any practice of their faith… private or public.  To be caught with anything in writing, indicating the adherence to the Catholic Faith, would find a person imprisoned, hanged…or hanged, drawn and quartered.

The “Twelve Days of Christmas” was written in England as one of the “catechism songs” to help young Catholics learn the tenets of their faith… a memory aid.


Despite the absence of hard evidence that the 12 Days of Christmas is a song of catechism, it can still be used as a learning tool.

In 1979, a Canadian hymnologist, Hugh D. McKellar, published an article, “How to Decode the Twelve Days of Christmas”, claiming that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” lyrics were intended as a catechism song to help young Catholics learn their faith, at a time when practising Catholicism was criminalized in England (1558 until 1829). McKellar offered no evidence for his claim and subsequently admitted that the purported associations were his own invention.[29] The idea was further popularized by a Catholic priest, Fr. Hal Stockert, in an article he wrote in 1982 and posted online in 1995,[30][31] In 1987 and 1992, Fr. James Gilhooley, chaplain of Mount Saint Mary College of Newburgh, New York repeated these claims.[32][33] None of the enumerated items would distinguish Catholics from Protestants, and so would hardly need to be secretly encoded.[3]

Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio, author of the Crossroads Initiative,  writes “The “Twelve Days of Christmas” refer to the eight days of the Christmas Octave from December 25 to New Years Day, and the four additional days up to and including the eve of January 6, the traditional date of the Epiphany. In the USA and many other countries, Epiphany is now celebrated on the first Sunday after New Years, so the exact number 12 does not necessarily apply. But the point is, don’t throw out the tree on the 26th–the birth of the Savior can’t be celebrated adequately in one day. Let the celebration continue through at least through the Feast of the Epiphany–if not through the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.

According to the Handbook of Catholic Sacramentals by Ann Ball, the famous song about the 12 Days of Christmas was written in England as a catechism song for young Catholics in the days when it was illegal to practice or teach the Catholic Faith. It contains hidden meanings intended to help children remember lessons of faith. Instead of referring to an earthly suitor, the “true love” mentioned in the song really refers to God. The “me” who receives the presents is symbolic of every baptized person.

There appears to be no conclusive historical evidence to prove this origin of the song, Nevertheless, the traditional association between the gifts mentioned in the song and various spiritual gifts is a fun way to turn a seemingly secular Christmas carol into a valuable catechetical tool. So let’s have fun with it!”

12 Days of Christmas

The song’s gifts are hidden meanings to the teachings of the faith.  The “true love” mentioned in the song refers to God, Himself.  The “me” who receives the presents refers to every baptized person.  The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (A mother partridge will feign injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings.)

the bird, partridge

A mother partridge will distract a predictor from her young in order to save them. The partridge in the song “12 Days of Christmas” represents Jesus.

The other symbols mean the following:

2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments

3 French Hens = the Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope and Charity)

4 Calling Birds = The Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists

5 Golden Rings = The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the “Pentateuch,” which gives the history of man’s fall from Grace.

6 Geese-a-Laying = The Six Days of Creation

7 Swans-a-Swimming = the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, the 7 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 Eleven faithful Apostles

12 Drummers Drumming = the Twelve points of Doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed



Honoring Anne Frank’s Birthday

by Rebecca Faulkner – April 28, 2014

Looking out of the window of her secret annex, Anne Frank saw beauty in a chestnut tree as the horrors of the Holocaust were closing in on her and her family. See how saplings from that tree are helping to plants seeds of tolerance all over the world.

If Anne Frank were alive today, June 12, 2014, she would be 85 years old.  Thanks to her diary and saplings from the white chestnut tree that grew outside her attic window, she will live forever.  

Anne Frank (Photo: AFF/Basel)

Anne Frank (Photo: AFF/Basel)


From her only window to the outside world, Anne Frank could see the sky, the birds, and a majestic chestnut tree. “As long as this exists,” Anne wrote in her diary, “how can I be sad?” During the two years she spent in the secret annex, the solace Anne found in her chestnut tree provided a powerful contrast to the Holocaust unfolding beyond her attic window. And as war narrowed in on Anne and her family, her tree became a vivid reminder that a better world was possible.

Anne’s tree would outlive its namesake by more than 50 years, before succumbing to disease and a windstorm in August 2010. But today, thanks to dozens of saplings propagated in the months before its death, Anne’s tree lives on in cities and towns around the world.

In the United States, The Anne Frank Center USA’s Sapling Project is bringing 11 of these precious trees to specially selected locations across the country. As the saplings take root, they will emerge as living monuments to Anne’s pursuit of peace and tolerance. In the process, they will serve as powerful reminders of the horrors borne by hate and bigotry and the need for collective action in the face of injustice.

Anne’s tree was a white horse chestnut tree, of a variety found throughout the Northern hemisphere. At the time of its demise, it was over 170 years old, making it one of the oldest trees of its kind in Amsterdam. Throughout that period, it stood in the courtyard garden of number 188 Keizersgracht—right outside of Anne’s secret annex window.

“Our chestnut tree is in full bloom. It’s covered with leaves and is even more beautiful than last year.” — Anne Frank’s diary, May 13, 1944

As decades passed, the majestic tree became infected with a moth and fungus infestation. Determined not to let the tree be lost forever, The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam decided, with the permission of the tree’s owner, to gather chestnuts, germinate them, and donate the saplings to schools and organizations dedicated to Anne Frank.

In 2009, the Anne Frank Center USA (AFC) received 11 of those saplings with plans to plant them across the United States. After a lengthy selection process, the AFC chose planting sites which memorialize incidences of intolerance and discrimination and share its mission to promote equal rights and mutual respect. The sites include: Little Rock Central High School and the William J. Clinton Presidential Center in Arkansas; Sonoma State University in California; the Wassmuth Center for Human Rights in Idaho; The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis; Boston Common; the Holocaust Memorial Center in Michigan; Liberty Park Commemorating 9/11 in New York City; the Southern Cayuga School District in New York State; the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center, and the West Front Lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

After a three-year quarantine, the saplings were cleared for planting in 2013. Holocaust survivors, school children, and local dignitaries attended the public dedications of these saplings, which were celebratory and deeply moving events that remind us how tolerance can grow in the face of bigotry and racism.

Congressional leaders will plant the next sapling this Wednesday, April 30th, on the West Front Lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. The remaining five saplings are scheduled to be planted in 2015. In conjunction with the plantings, AFC has launched a “Confronting Intolerance Today” speaker series to showcase global approaches to combating intolerance.

As Americans, we sometimes think of the horrors of the Holocaust as events that only happen in far off places and not on our own shores. But the United States has its own human rights issues, as evidenced by treatment of Native Americans, slavery, segregation, and by the ongoing struggle for full civil rights for women and people of color. These chapters in our shared history become the stories from which today’s generation can learn to fight intolerance in all forms, to identify prejudice, stereotyping, polarization, and to advocate for a world based on mutual respect. By attending a planting ceremony or a “Confronting Intolerance Today” event, you can help honor Anne’s vision of a more just world.

Rebecca Faulkner is the Special Projects Manager for The Anne Frank Center USA.

Visit the Sapling Project website for information on where the next event is taking place. You can also join the discussion on the Speak Up! page to participate in a dialogue on topics as diverse as the inequalities in the American justice system, genocide in South Sudan, poverty across the United States, and the rights of the LGBT community.