There is one carol (or should that be a song?) that has always baffled many people at Christmas. I mean, what in the world do Leaping Lords, French Hens, Swimming Swans, and a ‘Partridge who won’t come out of the Pear tree’ have to do with Christmas? There’s an interesting piece of history behind this carol/song!
From 1558 until 1829, Roman Catholics in England were not permitted to practice their faith openly. This carol was written during that era as a creedal song for young Catholics. It has two levels of meaning: the surface meaning plus a hidden meaning known only to members of the church. Each element in the carol has an element of the Christian Faith which the children could remember.
- The Partridge in a Pear tree was Jesus Christ
- Two Turtle Doves were the Old and New Testaments.
- Three French Hens stood for Faith, Hope, Love.
- Four Calling Birds were the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, 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: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, Fear of the Lord.
- 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, Self Control.
- Ten Lords a-leaping were the Ten Commandments.
- Eleven Pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful Disciples.
- Twelve Drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in the Apostles’ Creed.
Do you still think it’s a naff Christmas carol? Probably yes. But it’s a bit of fun and it will take on a different meaning next time you sing it!
And just for fun, here’s a ‘Twelve Hours of Christmas’ we sang on Christmas Day a few years ago!