I always enjoy singing “The 12 Days of Christmas” with its cumulative verses. The song’s lyrics are silly, or so
I thought—until now. An email that’s going around claims the French hens, swimming swans and maids-a-milking originated as code words
for others of religious significance.
Apparently from 1558 to 1829, Roman Catholics in England were banned from
practicing their faith. Someone reportedly created the carol as a catechism song for young Catholics and the words had a hidden meaning
known only to members of the Church.
The words and their meanings were attributed to the following: The partridge
in a pear tree was Jesus Christ. Two turtledoves were the Old and New Testaments. Three French hens stood for faith, hope and love.
Four calling birds were the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Five golden rings recalled the Torah or Law, the first five
books of the Old Testament. The six geese-a-laying represented the six days of Creation.
were the gifts of the Holy Spirit: prophesy, serving, teaching, exhortation, contribution, leadership and mercy. The eight maids a-milking
stood for the eight beatitudes. Nine ladies dancing were the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness,
goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
The hidden meanings behind the next two gifts can be easily
figured out…. The 10 lords-a-leaping were the 10 commandments and the 11 pipers piping stood for the 11 faithful disciples. Finally,
the 12 drummers drumming symbolized the 12 points of belief in the Apostles’ Creed.
If you Google the song title,
more info on the song’s hidden meanings comes up. It’s written that the “true love” represents God and “me” refers to baptized Christians.
According to Wikipedia, there are other claims to the song’s origin, such as being the chant for a Twelfth Night “memories and forfeits”
reciting game. Some evidence points to the song having a French origin.
In Hawai‘i, a whimsical version of the
song is credited with “legitimizing the use of pidgin English in mass communication.” Hawai‘i’s pidgin dialect was first common among
non-English-speaking plantation workers who immigrated to the islands from Japan, China, the Philippines and Portugal.
According to the “Honolulu Star-Bulletin,” the island-style lyrics were written on a whim by three friends as they enjoyed a meal
of Chinese takeout. Titled “Numbah One Day of Christmas,” the 1950s song evokes images representative of Hawaii—including the importance
of owning a TV. After copyrighted in 1959, it was first recorded by Ed Kenney for Columbia Records.
substitute the Hawaiian word “tutu”—meaning grandmother—for “true love,” and start off: “Numbah One day of Christmas, my tutu give
to me…one mynah bird in one papaya tree.”
So, using the regular “12 Days” tune, sing the last verse to get a glimpse
of the islands: “Numbah 12 day of Christmas, my tutu give to me: 12 television, 11 missionary, 10 can of beer, nine pound of poi,
eight ukulele, seven shrimp-a-swimming,’ seex hula lesson, five…beeg fat peeeeeg…foah flowah lei, tree dry squid, two coconut, an’
one mynah bird in one papaya tree.”
Better yet, sing along with the island imagery, via
12 Days of Christmas—wherever or however you sing it!