On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me, three French hens……

Have you ever wondered what the symbols in that song are supposed to mean? You are probably familiar with the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, as a joyful reminder that the Christmas season begins on Christmas Day (Dec. 25) with the birth of Christ (Christmas Day, December 25) and continues until the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem (Epiphany, January 6). The secular, commercial world seems to think that the Christmas season starts after Halloween and ends with the last twelve shopping days before Christmas! It always saddens me to see tinsel covered evergreen trees bagged and lying at the end of driveways, along with bags of crumpled wrapping paper and bows, waiting for trash pickup the day after Christmas. Christmas Day is the beginning and not the end of the Christmas season! Christians need to be reminded to continue our Christmas celebrations for at least twelve more days. But what does “three French hens, two turtle doves and a partidge in a pear tree” have to do with Christmas?

This year I got curious about the song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, and went to Google, but found conflicting reports on the origin and meanings of the symbols in the song. It seems that the specific origins of this song are unknown, but in 1625 a similar song was sung by Christians in France and England, In Those Twelve Days, which assigned religious meanings to each of the twelve days. The first evidence of the song that we know is found in a 1780 children’s book, Mirth Without Mischief, without explanation of the meaning of the symbols. It may have just been a fun song for families to sing. Whatever the origins or intent of the song, it is fun to sing and challenges children of all ages to remember and repeat symbols of each day of the Christmas season.

Here is one interpretation that I find lovely, though perhaps not the original intent of the song, but worth remembering. My “true love” mentioned in the song refers to God. The “me” who receives the presents refers to every baptized person. The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge which feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings. The other symbols may mean the following:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
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                              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 12 points in the Apostle’s Creed

Enjoy the song and make meaning of each day of the Christmas season!

Merry Christmas


This entry was posted in The Rev. Dr. Carol M. Flett and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me, three French hens……

  1. Bob Sellery says:

    So, now we know.

    Thank you, Merry Christmas.

    Bob Sellery, Boyce, VA

  2. Susan Muncey says:

    How very interesting! Thank you for investigating & passing on your knowledge!

  3. Noell Sottile says:

    Yay! I always try to fully enjoy the full Christmas season. Thanks for an interesting Daily Cup!
    –Noell S.

  4. desmotreux marie says:

    On a jamais vu une perdrix dans un poirier. Peut-être, alors, que tout le reste sont des voeux pieux qui n’arriveront jamais, l’amoureux en réalité n’est peut-être pas très attentionné. Est-ce un appel du pied ???

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