There is one carol that has always baffled many people. 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!
From 1558 until 1829, Roman Catholics in England were not permitted to practice their faith openly. This carol was wrote 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!