“The Twelve Days of Christmas” celebrates the official Christmas season which starts liturgically on Christmas Day and ends twelve days later on the Feast of the Epiphany. “My true love” refers to God, “me” is the individual Catholic. The “twelve lords a leaping” are the twelve basic beliefs of the Catholic Church as outlined in the Apostles Creed. The “eleven pipers piping” are the eleven Apostles who remained faithful after the treachery of Judas. The “ten ladies dancing” are the Ten Commandments. The “nine drummers drumming” are the nine choirs of angels which in those days of class distinction were thought important. The “eight maids a milking” are the Eight Beatitudes. The “seven swans a swimming” are the Seven Sacraments. The “six geese a laying” are the Six Commandments of the Church or the six days of creation. The “five golden rings” are the first five books of the Old Testament called the Torah which are generally considered the most sacred and important of all the Old Testament. The “four calling birds” are the Four Gospels. The “three French hens” are the Three Persons in God or the three gifts of the Wise Men. The “two turtle doves” represent the two natures in Jesus: human and divine or the two Testaments, Old and New. The “partridge” is the piece de resistance, Jesus himself, and the “pear tree” is the Cross.Note the nice bit of hedging one's bets at number six; I have also seen the numbers nine and seven interpreted as the fruits and gifts of the Holy Spirit, respectively. There are a few problems - some people have done their homework and cannot find any reference to recusancy in connection with this song before A.D. 1990 and this particular theory seems to have first arisen on the Internet; and it seems that there may be a French origin to the song (a theory says that it skipped the Channel c. 1770).
Whatever the doubtful origins of the song, there are Twelve Days in Christmas, and they add up to a splendid celebration in the Roman Breviary. Because each of the first four days is the beginning of an Octave (one makes a special commemoration of the feast that has an Octave for seven days, and then celebrates it anew on the eighth), there is a polyphony in the prayer that ebbs and flows rather like Thomas Tallis's Spem in alium. In addition to the feasts I list below, one of the first eight days of Christmas will be the Sunday within the Octave of Christmas, which carries its own significance and recounts the blessing of Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem by Simeon and Anna. It commemorates the prominent and surprising emphasis of the Octave of Christmas, the coming suffering ("yea, a sword shall pierce thine own soul also", says Simeon to Mary) and the lamb-like innocence of the Divine Son, and yet His kingly power, shortly to be revealed in the Epiphany.
(1) 25th December: The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ
This is a feast which sets Christmas in motion, but which is not primarily a feast of a little baby in a manger, but is - remember that this day brings Advent to its consummation - a triumphant proclamation of the coming of the Christ as King, one who will rule the nations with a Rod of Iron. Its temper is set by the shout of the angels, Gloria in excelsis Deo.
The three Masses of this day, Midnight, Dawn and Midday, have slightly different connotations and have been mystically interpreted as connected with, respectively, the Creation (Jesus's origin in Eternity), in the Judaic dispensation (Jesus's birth in Time), and in the Christian dispensation (Jesus's birth in the Soul).
(2) 26th December: St. Stephen the First Martyr
The first martyr to follow in the footsteps of Christ, who was an outcast in the swaddling clothes of the manger as he was to be an outcast in the shroud of the tomb, is joined so closely to the celebration of Christ's birth to be a stark reminder of the fate of the faithful follower of the Christ-Child, and of their common prayer of forgiveness to the Father in the moment of death.
(3) 27th December: St. John the Apostle and Evangelist
The one who leaned upon the breast of Jesus, the beloved disciple, is celebrated to bring one to contemplate a mystical union in love with the Incarnate God. Again, the suffering and Cross is not far distant, for St John stands with the Mother of the Church at the foot of the Cross, himself a type of the Church given to her maternal care, as was too the Infant Jesus.
(4) 28th December: The Holy Innocents
The martyrdom of St. Stephen and suffering of St. John's heart is followed by the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem at the hands of Herod. Here is a relentless third in this threefold prefiguring of the Passion, the Lamb without spot offered at the hands of wicked men, intent on preserving their own power and safety; here too is a prefiguring of the One who "as a sheep before his shearers is dumb, so openeth he not his mouth". The Holy Innocents are understood by some to be those 144,000 of the Apocalypse who are virgins, and who "follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth"; those who have seen the Triumph of the Holy Innocents by Holman Hunt in the Walker Gallery in Liverpool will not forget the scene of a crowd of toddlers thronging the Holy Family on their flight into Egypt, getting across the mystical idea of the unity of these slaughtered children with the ultimate work of Jesus.
(5) 29th December: St. Thomas a Becket
There is a summing up of the themes of the first four days of Christmas in the death of Archbishop of Canterbury: he is martyred for standing against worldly interest, one with Christ at His very altar.
(6) 30th December
The one day without a specific memorial, in it one recalls the four simultaneously running Octaves in the following commemorations:
Antiphon of the Nativity: Gloria in exclesis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis, alleluia, alleluia
Antiphon of St. Stephen: Stephanus autem plenus gratia et fortitudine, faciebat signa magna in populo
Antiphon of St John: Iste est Joannes, qui supra pectus Domini in coena recubuit: beatus Apostolus, cui revelata sunt secreta coelstia
Antiphon of the Holy Innocents: Hi sunt, qui cum mulieribus non sunt coinquinati: virgines enum sunt, et sequuntur Agnum quocumque ierit
(7) 31st December: St. Silvester Pope and Confessor
Bishop of Rome at the time of Constantine, his legend states that he refused the imperial crown from the newly converted Emperor Constantine, from which it is implied that the Pope's authority guides the imperial power: emphasising, one might say, that the kingly exercise of Jesus's power is subject to His priestly and sacrificial authority. He rules, but from the Cross; just as He is truly Incarnate, but in a mean stable.
(8) 1st January: The Octave Day of Christmas, the Feast of Mary as Mother of God (The Theotokos or "God-bearer") and the Feast of the Circumcision.
Rather than Christmas Day itself, which is very much a festival of the Kingship of the Babe, the feast at New Year is a feast of the humanity of Christ, seen in a dual way - in His Circumcision and subjection to the Law of which He was Author, and in His taking his humanity from His dear Mother. One of the antiphons for this day speaks of the "marvellous exchange", whereby He takes our humanity and we are granted His Divinity.
(9) 2nd January: The Octave Day of St. Stephen
(10) 3rd January: The Octave Day of St. John
(11) 4th January: The Octave Day of the Holy Innocents
(12) 5th January: The Vigil of the Epiphany, Twelfth Night
From the Octave Day of Christmas and each of the days following until Vigil of the Epiphany, the commemoration of each of the Octaves gradually drops out of the daily prayer, the polyphony sinking into a single keening voice at the lamentation of Rachel for her children in the Octave of the Holy Innocents. Then, on the Vigil of this among the most ancient of Feasts, the Appearing of the Christ to the Gentiles, the note of joy and expectation is taken up again, and the happiness of the Babe in Arms is about to be transformed into manly joy as God Incarnate, King and High Priest raises His radiant eyes over the benighted world, receives homage and the gifts of His station, is lighted upon by the Spirit of Life and Power and pours out wine like water.