(RNS) Twelve drummers? Ten leaping lords? Two turtle doves?
Chances are, the gifts in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” are not high on anyone’s Christmas list this year. In fact, it’s hard to imagine they were ever popular presents.
“It’s not a literal song,” said Mickey Mullany, a professional caroler in Baltimore who admits to sometimes forgetting parts of the famously long lyrics. “If it was a literal song, it would be monstrous.”
Indeed, in the NBC sitcom “The Office,” a salesman attempts to kindle romance with a co-worker by sending her presents from “The Twelve Days.” After her cat kills the turtledoves and the French hens nest in her hair, the co-worker begs him to please, stop.
“Is it my fault the first eight days are basically 30 birds?” the lovesick salesman protests.
Given their unsuitability as gifts, how did dancing ladies, piping pipers, and a bevy of birds become part of one of the season’s best-known carols? What, if anything, do they symbolize?
It depends on whom you ask.
The song has French origins, and was published in an English children’s book called “Mirth without Mischief” around 1780. Most people believe it began as a memory game sung at Twelfth Night parties. The 12 days of Christmas in Western Christianity refer to the time between Christ’s birth on Dec. 25 and the arrival of the Magi to honor the newborn, known as Epiphany, on Jan. 6.
In recent times, the song has been searched for coded references to Catholic doctrine, ancient Egyptian holidays, Roman myths, and the menu at medieval feasts. It has even become an annual index of economic inflation. Purchasing all the gifts from “Twelve Days” would cost about $23,400, an increase of more than 9 percent from last year, PNC Financial Services Group announced last month.
In the 1990s, a story began floating around the Internet that “The Twelve Days” was used as a secret catechism by Catholics persecuted after the Reformation in England. The “true love” who offers the gifts refers to God, according to this theory. The partridge is Jesus, the two turtle doves are the Old and New Testaments, the three French hens represent the virtues of faith, hope and charity, and so on.
But California folklorists who run Snopes.com, an urban legend website, dispute the catechism tale. None of the tenets supposedly encoded in the song were points of conflict between Anglicans and Catholics, the website notes, so there would have been no reason to keep them secret. Also, it’s impractical to rely on a seasonal song to teach the faith, the folklorists said. What did persecuted Catholics do for the rest of the year?
William Studwell, who was considered the dean of Christmas carol scholarship before he died last August, was also skeptical.
“If there was such a catechism device, a secret code, it was derived from the original secular song,” he said in a 2008 interview with Religion News Service. “It’s a derivative, not the source.”
“The song can still be used as an educational or devotional tool by using the symbols as a mnemonic device,” said the Rev. Dennis Bratcher, a Church of the Nazarene minister and director of the Christian Resource Institute. “Many Christians today hear the song in those terms anyway, regardless of its origins.”
That’s how “The Twelve Days” sounds to Ace Collins, an evangelical author of numerous books about Christmas carols.
On the surface, the carol seems as nonsensical as “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” Collins said. But a deeper meaning lies below the silly lyrics, he said, comparing the carol to “Roll, Jordan, Roll” the gospel song that was both biblical and a code for black slaves seeking to escape the South.
“Whether it was written that way, or adapted that way, either way it allows people to consider things they don’t normally think about,” Collins said of the carol, “and can possibly become a road that leads people to a greater understanding of Christ.”
Leigh Grant, who wrote and illustrated a children’s book about “The Twelve Days,” said the gifts are popular parts of medieval feasts, often held during Twelfth Night celebrations. The birds were eaten while the pipers, drummers, and lords entertained the guests. The five golden rings in the song refer not to jewelry, but to ring-necked pheasants.
But the song is also rife with symbolism, Grant said.
Partridges and pears, for instance, were considered emblems of fertility during the Renaissance, she said. Likewise, geese and swans were seen as intermediaries between the earth and the sky, and thus humans and heaven.
“I’ve heard a lot of theories about this song,” Grant said, “and I don’t know if any of them are true. But what often happens to songs is that people change them, and so does the meaning people find in them.”