Thursday, December 22, 2022

The Meaning behind the Carol

 By Sherri Stewart

Even if you don't know all the words, you're likely able to remember a verse or two of the “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Quiz time: ‘Five golden _________.” Did you sing it or say it? “The Twelve Days of Christmas” has become a staple of the music we hear leading up to the blessed day, but if we’re honest, it’s a song that taxes our memory. But did you know there’s a theoretical hidden message behind the lyrics?

Not much of the song has significance in our times, but knowing the rich history behind the elaborate song puts the seemingly odd lyrics in context. Surprisingly, the Twelve Days of Christmas, known as Twelvetide, comprise the twelve days following December 25th. The period begins with the birth of Christ on December 25th and ends with the coming of the Three Wise Men on January 6th, also known as the Epiphany or Three Kings Day. By contrast, the weeks before Christmas are known as Advent. (

Though some scholars believe that the song is French in origin, the first printed appearance of the song was in the English children's book, Mirth without Mischief, which was published in 1780. In the original lyrics, the “four calling birds” were actually “four colly birds.” The term “colly” is old English slang for blackbirds. A Scottish version includes “an Arabian baboon” as one of the gifts. It wasn't until 1909 that British composer, Frederic Austin, wrote the lyrics of the carol that we are familiar with today.

Most historians believe that the Christmas carol started out as a “memory-and-forfeit” game in 1800s England. We’ve all played them: When it’s our turn, we repeat all the previous words and add the next one. In the English game, if a person can't remember, they owe their opponent a “forfeit,” which is usually a kiss or a piece of candy.

One theory about the secret message of the lyrics comes from a time when Christians were punished for worshiping openly. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” song was used to secretly pass on the tenets of Christianity. Each gift on the list symbolizes a different aspect of the Christian faith:

  • The Partridge in the Pear Tree is Jesus Christ.
  • The 2 Turtle Doves are The Old and New Testaments.
  • The 3 French hens are Faith, Hope and Charity.
  • The 4 Calling Birds are the four gospels and/or the four evangelists.
  • The 5 Golden Rings are the first five books of the Old Testament.
  • The 6 Geese A-laying are the six days of creation.
  • The 7 Swans A-swimming are the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
  • The 8 Maids A-milking are the eight beatitudes.
  • The 9 Ladies Dancing are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit.
  • The 10 Lords A-leaping are the ten commandments.
  • The 11 Pipers Piping are the eleven faithful apostles.
  • The 12 Drummers Drumming are the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed.

Since 1984, PNC Bank has been tracking the price of giving each gift mentioned in the song. The index uses current market rates to calculate how much each gift would cost, on average, for the modern consumer. In today’s market the total of all gifts lands at $41,205.58, according to the current Christmas price index. Partly, this is because swans cost about $250 each. But the real reason the final number is so immense is because the gifts are cumulative, adding up to a whopping 364 gifts.

Sherri Stewart loves a clean novel, sprinkled with romance and a strong message that challenges her faith. She spends her working hours with books—either editing others’ manuscripts or writing her own. Her passions are traveling to the settings of her books and sampling the food. She traveled to Paris for this book, and she still works daily on her French, although she doesn’t need to since everyone speaks English. A recent widow, Sherri lives in Orlando with her lazy dog, Lily. She shares recipes, tidbits of the book’s locations, and other authors' books in her newsletter.

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What Hides behind the Walls

If the Nazis stole your house, wouldn’t you be justified in stealing it back now that the war is over?

When Tamar Feldman admits to her husband, Daniel, and mentor, Neelie Visser, that she broke into her former home, they scold her for taking such a risk. Tamar is tired of being careful. She’s tired of living in the present, as if the past doesn’t matter. But the painting of the violin girl in her former bedroom draws her back again and again. She finally steals the painting to return it to its former owner. Now maybe this small act of justice will help her start to heal. What Tamar doesn’t realize is the past isn’t finished with her yet; in fact, it’s as close as the walls in her house and even follows her to Paris.



  1. Thank you for posting today, and Merry Christmas! I really enjoyed learning more about this beloved Christmas song. Do you think that the religious explanation is real or came afterwards to make the song spiritual?

    1. I think the religious explanation came afterward to make it sound spiritual. The numbers are too contrived. What do you think?