The Twelve Days of Christmas: The Christmas Song
Everybody knows what the Twelve Days of Christmas are, right? After all, we've been singing the Christmas song since we were old enough to talk:
On the First Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me
A partridge in a pear tree.
As the song progresses, the lucky recipient piles up gifts, each day receiving what he or she received the day before, as well as a new item—or rather items, since the generous giver pegs the quantity of his gifts to the number of the days of Christmas:
•Two turtledoves •Three French hens •Four collie birds (blackbirds; often mispronounced as "calling birds") •Five golden rings •Six geese a-laying •Seven swans a-swimming •Eight maids a-milking •Nine ladies dancing •Ten lords a-leaping •Eleven pipers piping •Twelve drummers drumming
But wait! There's more. In 1995, Fr. Hal Stockert, a Byzantine Catholic priest from Granville, New York, published a short piece on the website of the Catholic Information Network entitled The Twelve Days of Christmas: An Underground Catechism. Father Stockert claimed that the "delightful nonsense rhyme set to music . . . had a quite serious purpose when it was written." Referring to the years 1558-1829, when the practice of Catholicism was officially outlawed in England, Father Stockert claimed to have uncovered evidence that "'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." Each of the gifts, Father Stockert declared, represented one of the truths of the Catholic Faith:
•1 patridge 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
There's only one problem: As David Emery, the About.com Guide to Urban Legends, explains in Is 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' an Underground Catechism Song?, Father Stockert had no evidence to back up his claims. As Father Stockert correctly notes, "to be caught with anything in *writing* indicating adherence to the Catholic faith could not only get you imprisoned, it could get you hanged, or shortened by a head—or hanged, drawn and quartered," yet almost all of the points of doctrine that young Catholic children supposedly needed "The Twelve Days of Christmas" to help them memorize were shared with the Anglican Church. Moreover, there are glaring errors in Father Stockert's list: He uses the mistaken "calling birds," which matches up much more nicely with the four evangelists than the correct "collie birds" does; and the Catholic Church recognizes 12 fruits of the Holy Spirit, not nine.
For more information on why we can be sure "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was not an "underground catechism song," see David Emery's article and a similar piece (though with additional information) at Snopes.com. Called to document his claims, and finding himself unable to do so, Father Stockert himself eventually added a P.S. to his article:
P.S. It has come to our attention that this tale is made up of both fact and fiction. Hopefully it will be accepted in the spirit it was written. As an encouragement to people to keep their faith alive, when it is easy, and when any outward expressions of their faith could mean their life. Today there are still people living under similar conditions, may this tale give them courage, and determination to use any creative means at their disposal to keep their faith alive.
Despite Father Stockert's own acknowledgment of his mistake, years later Catholics in the United States (in particular) continue to spread this urban legend every Christmas season, and well-intentioned priests and parish secretaries dutifully reprint it in their parish bulletins. While little harm (other than the perpetuation of historical misinformation) is likely to come from the "Twelve Days of Christmas" myth, it would be better to use that space in the bulletin to encourage parishioners to celebrate the real Twelve Days of Christmas—the period between Christmas Day and Epiphany, in which we celebrate some of the most important, interesting, and spiritual symbolic feasts of the entire liturgical year.