Do French hens, gold rings, and milking maids have anything to do with Christmas?
Is it possible a beloved Christmas carol might have a deeper, hidden message?
England was a place of religious intolerance and persecution in the sixteenth century. For the next 300 years, people who refused to join the state church developed creative ways to teach their children beliefs dear to the free church. Many used lyrics and song to teach and indoctrinate.
The popular song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” is actually an insurgent, rebel, diatribe against the tenants and teaching of the religious overlords of jolly ol’ England. The song is about a generous benefactor who loved to give. (James 1:17-18). His name is never used other than He is “my true love” referring, of course, to God.
“The Twelve Days of Christmas”
On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…a partridge in a pear tree.
The first gift of this Christmas song is a partridge, a small bird. The original gift of Christmas is Jesus, sent to earth from God. The partridge was known as a valiant bird, willing to fight to the death to defend its young. The pear tree represents the cross
On the second day…two turtledoves.
For hundreds of years, Jewish families used turtledoves as offerings to God. The gift of two doves is a reminder of the sacrifice offered for Jesus by Mary and Joseph. (Luke 2:22, 24)
On the third day…three French hens.
French hens were valuable poultry during the sixteenth century – only the rich could afford them. These costly birds symbolized the three valuable gifts given to Jesus by the wise men; gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2:11)
On the fourth day…four calling birds.
Like birds calling out with loud and distinctive voices, the four Gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John called people to faith in Jesus as their Saviour. (John 20:31)
On the fifth day…five golden rings.
Gold rings are among the most valuable and treasured of all gifts. The five golden rings represent the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These books, written by Moses, were treated with great reverence and considered to be worth far more than gold. (Deuteronomy 34:10, 12)
On the sixth day…six geese a-laying.
In many cultures, eggs symbolize new life. Six geese laying eggs become reminders of the six days of creation when God, by His Word, brought forth life on earth. (Genesis 1:1, 31)
On the seventh day…seven swans a-swimming.
Seven swans symbolize the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Just as baby swans grow and change from “ugly ducklings” into beautiful and graceful birds, so do God’s children grow and change when they use their gifts to benefit other Christians. (Romans 12:5-6)
On the eighth day…eight maids a-milking.
The eight maidens milking represent eight unique teachings of Jesus, the Beatitudes, which nurture and strengthen us much the way milk nourishes a child. (Matthew 5:3-10)
On the ninth day…nine ladies dancing.
The nine ladies remind us of the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit produced in the lives of God’s children. Just as these ladies dance joyfully, so can every Christian rejoice over the life-changing fruit of the Holy Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-23)
On the tenth day…ten lords a-leaping.
Lords were men with authority to command people’s obedience and symbolize God’s ten basic laws, the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 20:3-17)
On the eleventh day…eleven pipers piping.
Eleven pipers represent the eleven apostles who were chosen by Jesus and remained faithful to Him. Like children joyfully following a piper, the disciples followed Jesus. They piped an everlasting tune of great joy – the salvation message of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. (Romans 6:4)
On the twelfth day…twelve drummers drumming.
Just as drummers beat out a loud, steady rhythm for marchers to follow, so the twelve points in the Apostle’s Creed sets forth the beliefs of those who call themselves Christians.
Just as this beloved song seeks to share the Good News story of Christmas in a creative and innovative way, may we all this Christmas intentionally seek to share the old Christmas story in a creative and winsome way.
Enjoy this wonderful season of the year. And, make sure others see your joy — like the “lords a-leaping?” It has been a long time since I saw a pastor or deacon leaping for joy!