I received a flyer, "The Twelve Days of Christmas (The Faith Hidden in Song)," reprinted from the November 1999 newsletter of the Latin Mass Society of Great Britain, 11-13 Macklin Street, London WC2B 5NH England. Most of you have probably seen or heard this story before about how this song was developed by English Catholics to communicate their faith in coded lyrics. "True love" is said to refer to God; the "Partridge" is the symbol of Christ; the "Two Turtle doves" symbolize the Old testament sacrifice offered by the parents of Jesus at His presentation in the Temple; the "Three French hens" symbolize the three Wise Men and three theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity; the "Four calling birds" represent the four major prophets and four Evangelists; and so forth. One similar example of such an account is given online under the title, "The Origin of the Twelve Days of Christmas."
Well, I hate to disappoint you, folks. But Snopes.com, which has a pretty good record of sorting out fact from the stuff of urban legend, says, in its post, "The Twelve Days of Christmas," that this account has no basis in fact. Snopes could be wrong, of course. In any case, there is nothing fictional about the record of persecution of Catholics in England particularly under Elizabeth I and her Secretary of State, William Cecil. Civil Rights were not restored to English Catholics until the Act or Restoration of 1829.
Having said that, the symbolism of this account is charming nonetheless and may have been used for some time in Catholic and other Christian circles. So here are the rest:
"Five golden rings" represent the five wounds of Christ, as well as the five obligatory sacraments (Baptism, Penance, the Holy Eucharist, Confirmation, and Extreme Unction), and also the five books fo the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Levicitus, Numbers, Deuteronomy).
"Six geese a-laying" represent the six days of creation.
"Seven swans a-swimming" are the seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost and seven Works of Mercy (Corporal and Spiritual).
"Eight maids a-milking" are the eight Beatitudes, among other things.
"Nine ladies dancing" are the nine ranks of angel choirs.
"Ten lords a-leaping" represent the Ten Commandments.
"Eleven pipers playing" are the eleven surviving Apostles proclaiming the Resurrection of Jesus.
"Twelve drummers drumming" are the twelve minor Prophets and the twelve points of the Apostle's Creed, and also symbolize the twlve tribes of Israel, the twelve Apostles (their number being restored after Pentecost), as well as the twelve Fruits of the Holy Ghost, among other things.
Cheaper by the dozen. Seems the sky's the limit here. Say Amen.