What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?

The Christmas carol, 12 Days of Christmas has a rich history and is packed with symbolism. Do you know what the gifts represent? Let us find out.

By Petal Mashraki
Edited by Taj Schlebusch

Published September 29, 2021.

The 12 Days of Christmas is a Christmas carol dating back to the 1800s. The song counts an increasing number of gifts given each day, starting on Christmas Day and ending the day before the epiphany (5th January or 6th January, depending on your denomination).

How Do the "12 Days of Christmas" Relate to the Bible?

In Christian theology, the 12 days of Christmas pass between the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day and the coming of the magi (three wise men) celebrated on epiphany day. The epiphany has various traditions and customs. For example, Eastern Christians commemorate the baptism of Christ on epiphany day.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, teachers may have used the song to help kids remember Bible stories and religious concepts. The hidden meaning behind each gift represents a saint, feast day, biblical story, or martyr, but there are several interpretations. See below the gifts mentioned in the song and their most popular symbols.

  • Day 1: Partridge in a pear tree=God is true love, and he gave Jesus (partridge in a pear tree)
  • Day 2: Turtle doves=Old and New Testament
  • Day 3: French hens=Faith, Love, Hope
  • Day 4: Calling birds=Gospels
  • Day 5: Gold rings=Books of Moses
  • Day 6: Geese a laying=Days of Creation
  • Day 7: Swans a swimming=Gifts of the Holy Spirit
  • Day 8: Maids a milking=Beautitudes
  • Day 9: Drummers drumming=Fruits of the Holy Spirit
  • Day 10: Pipers piping=Commandments
  • Day 11: Ladies dancing=Apostles
  • Day 12: Lords a leaping=Points of the Apostles' Creed

What is the Origin of the Song?

The song was first published in English in 1780 without music but is thought to originate from France. The traditional tune we associate with the song was written by composer Frederic Austin in 1909.

The 12 Days of Christmas Today

Today the song is a cheery carol that is often used in parodies. People often think mistakenly that the 12 days lead up to Christmas rather than starting on Christmas Day. At the end of the 12 days, people traditionally take down their holiday decorations, and go back to life as usual!