The twelve days of Christmas take us from the Nativity to the Epiphany. The first to adore the Christ Child were His Mother and Saint Joseph. After them and with them, although unseen, were the angels: Let all the angels of God adore Him (Hebrews 1:6). Then came the shepherds who had seen the heavenly hosts. These simple and devout Jews came to Bethlehem and adored the Infant King in His tabernacle of straw. The Babe was wrapped in swaddling clothes, which Our Lady bound round Him with cords, as was the way of protecting infants among the Hebrews. The wood of the manger anticipated the wood of the Cross, the cords tying the swaddled cloth around the Savior’s tiny Body spoke of the ropes that would bind His hands in the Garden of Gethsemane. The sacrificial lambs of the shepherds were figures of the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world.
Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of the Savior to the Gentiles in the person of the three wise men. These men, called Magi in the Latin Vulgate and Greek (magi is a Persian word that could mean “learned astronomers”) came from afar and with “exceeding great joy” followed His star to Bethlehem and, finding the Child “with His Mother,” they adored Him, prostrating themselves flat on the ground. They opened their treasures for Him, offering gold to honor His royalty, frankincense to honor His divinity, and myrrh to honor His humanity.
The popular carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas, was a nineteenth century English composition that grew out of various interpolations and redactions over several decades before winding up as the song that we now have. It is commonly assumed that over these decades of formulation the persecuted Catholic faithful in England created the rhyming verses for Christmastide as a mnemonic code to help children remember twelve principle truths of the Christian religion. Not that these twelve truths were specifically proper only to Catholics, since Anglican Protestants accepted all but the seventh. Protestants reject five of the seven sacraments.
I have read several interpretations as to what the lyrics of this carol mean; one, with which I tend to agree, being that the words have no hidden meaning at all. They simply serve as a kind of nursery rhyme for the memory of little ones.
The Twelve Days of Christmas
On the first day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me
A partridge in a pear tree.
One partridge, one pear tree.
Truth: There is One God: Hear, O Israel: the Lord thy God is one God (Matthew 12:29).
On the second day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me
Two turtle doves.
Second truth: There are two natures in Christ, Divine and Human. Or, Two Testaments, Old and New.
Three French Hens
Third truth: There are three Persons in God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Or, three theological virtues, Faith, Hope, and Charity.
Four calling birds
Fourth truth: There are four Gospels. Or, four cardinal virtues, Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance.
Five golden rings
Fifth truth: There are five books of Moses, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. These are called the Pentateuch (five books).
Six geese a-laying
Sixth truth: There are six days of Creation
Seven swans a-swimming
Seventh truth: There are seven sacraments. Or, seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord.
Eight maids a-milking
Eighth truth: There are Eight Beatitudes
Nine ladies dancing
Ninth truth: There are nine choir of angels. Several Catholic sites have an error here in listing “nine fruits” of the Holy Ghost. There are twelve fruits of the Holy Ghost (Galatians 5:22).
Ten lords a-leaping
Tenth truth: There are Ten Commandments
Eleven pipers piping
Eleventh truth: There were eleven faithful Apostles. Judas was replaced by Saint Matthias to restore the number to twelve.
Twelve drummers drumming
Twelfth truth: There are twelve tribes of Israel, twelve Apostles, twelve fruits of the Holy Ghost, and twelve articles in the Apostles Creed.