The Twelve Days of Christmas commemorate the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany, from the coming of the Jews to Bethlehem in the persons of the shepherds, to the coming of the gentiles to Bethlehem in the persons of the Magi. We know that the Magi brought gifts, but I like to think that the shepherds did to. True, the latter came “in haste,” so one gift that they brought to Jesus had to be their enthusiasm to see and adore the new-born Savior. They also brought music with their flutes, for shepherds always carry flutes with them to entertain themselves and to calm their sheep. And with great excitement they told Mary and Joseph all about the “things they had seen and heard” from the angels. And Mary “kept all these things pondering them in her heart,” and revealing them to Saint Luke so he could write about them in his Gospel (2:19).
Although the author of the Christmas Carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas, is not known, it is believed that the song was composed in England as a mnemonic catechetical tool to make certain truths of the Catholic Faith more easy for children to remember during the worse years of the Protestant persecution.
I am going to add my own interpretation to most of the more commonly rendered ones regarding the symbolism of each of the twelve cumulative objects in the song.
On the first day of Christmas my true love came to me, a partridge in a pear tree.
I will not expand on the commonly given meaning of the first verse here, namely that the “true Love” is the Advent, the “Coming” of Our Lord, who is symbolized by a “partridge” because, supposedly, this bird is known to repel other bird-predators by feigning injury to protect her nestlings. How feigning injury would repel predators is a mystery to me. I rather think that the partridge, which actually dwells in rocky cliff terrain, is peculiar for its calling song that echoes from cliff to cliff. So, the bird can be a symbol of the prophets, especially John the Baptist, echoing the Coming of the Savior. The “pear tree,” an arbitrary insertion by some composer, is the Holy Cross.
The two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments. For catechetical purposes I would add the two natures in Christ, divine and human.
The three French hens stood for faith, hope, and charity. Of course here we can add the Three Persons in God.
The four calling birds were the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I would add the four cardinal virtues: Prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. And the four marks of the Church: One, holy, catholic, and apostolic.
The five golden rings represented the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch. Pentateuch is a Greek word meaning “five books.” I would add Our Lord’s Five Major Wounds. I would also add Our Lady’s five privileges: Her Divine Maternity, her Immaculate Conception and sinlessness, her perpetual Virginity, her mission as Mediatrix of All Graces, and her role as Co-Redemptrix.
The six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation. I will add the six precepts of the Church (see Baltimore catechism), six wings of the seraphim, and there are six letters for the Holy Name of Jesus in Greek (Ἰησοῦς). The Holy Name is found 968 times in the New Testament, which, as we know, was inspired in Greek.
Seven swans a-swimming represent the seven-fold gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, and Fear of the Lord. Of course, we also have the seven sacraments. Too, there are seven petitions in the Our Father, seven corporal and seven spiritual works of mercy.
The eight maids a-milking were the eight beatitudes. I have nothing to add here.
Nine ladies dancing were the nine choirs of angels.
The ten lords a-leaping were the Ten Commandments. Nothing to add here.
The eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful Apostles. Nothing to add here.
The twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve articles of the Apostles’ Creed and I would add the twelve fruits of the Holy Ghost. They are: Charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, long-suffering, mildness, faith modesty, and continency, and chastity (Galatians 5:22). And, too, the twelve tribes of Israel.