From 1558 until 1829, Roman Catholics in England were not allowed to practice their faith. In fact, being Catholic was a crime! So to preserve their teaching and doctrine, someone wrote this carol as a catechism song for young Catholics. It has a hidden meaning known only to members of their church. Each element in the carol has a code word for a religious reality, which the children could remember.
*A partridge in a pear tree represented Jesus Christ.
*Two turtle doves were the Old and the New Testaments.
*Three French hens stood for faith, hope, and love.
*Four calling birds were the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
*Five golden rings recalled the Torah or Law, the first five books of the Old Testament.
*Six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation.
*Seven swans a-swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit: prophesy, serving, teaching, exhortation, contribution, leadership, and mercy; it also represents the seven sacraments; baptism, Eucharist (Communion), reconciliation, confirmation, marriage, holy orders, and anointing of the sick.
*Eight maids a-milking were the eight beatitudes.
*Nine ladies dancing were the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
*The ten lords a-leaping were the Ten Commandments.
*Eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful disciples.
*Twelve drummers drumming were symbolic of the twelve points of belief in the Apostles' Creed.
From "A Family Advent" published by Thomas Nelson
Whether or not there is truth to the historical evidence of the song, the lyrics and what some people tied to them to remind them of the truths of the Bible are fantastic. We talked about the Apostles' Creed some and about why there were only 11 faithful disciples. As I read the words to the song, I asked the kids and my family to guess what each of the lyrics might be representing. It was a sweet time around the table and a catchy way to remember some very important truths through a seemingly silly song.