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The Gifting and the Giver: The 12 Days of Christmas

A few words about the tradition of the twelve days of Christmas.

Pilgrim Year Christmas Logo

At this point in our journey, it is appropriate to give a few words to the tradition of the twelve days of Christmas.

Whereas Advent is a season of preparation marked by fasting and prayer (subordinating lesser loves to welcome the dearest desire of the human heart, Christ himself), the Christmas season is a twelve-day feast of light and love.

The Light shines in the darkness, 
and the darkness did not overcome it.
John 1:5

Some translations of this verse say, “the darkness could not comprehend it.” Indeed, Christmas offers a radical alternative to the self-orientation of the darkened soul by revealing God’s humble orientation towards the other.

Though peppered with more solemn remembrances, such as the Feast of Saint Stephen and the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the Christmas season is still a prolonged, pull-out-all-the-stops celebration of the joy. This twelve-day feast is marked by a spirit of giving – mirroring the self-donation of God to us in the child named Emmanuel (God with us), whose life, death and resurrection decisively reveal that God is radically for us.

As far as I know, no particular significance is associated with the number twelve in this context. It is not a reference to the twelve disciples or the twelve tribes of Israel or anything like that. Twelve is simply the number of days between the Feast of Nativity and the Feast of Epiphany, the dates for which have become settled over the course of centuries.

But then there is that curious song “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which may lend contemplative focus to each of the twelve days.

My true love gave…

Growing up, I assumed “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was merely a nonsensical children’s song, and therefore never gave it much thought. However, I recently discovered a possible hidden meaning which, true or not, is interesting to consider. 

Although this interpretation is hotly debated, some historians have suggested that the song arose out of a persecuted minority of Catholic Christians in sixteenth-century England and was originally intended for Christian instruction. Forbidden to practise their tradition, parents taught this coded song to their children as a way to transmit the basic tenets of their faith. The “true love” mentioned in the song refers to God’s love for us. The “me” who receives the presents refers to everyone who is part of the Christian faith. Each of the twelve days represents some aspect of the Christian faith that was important for children to learn.

The song also beautifully and symbolically represents Jesus as a mother partridge who is known to feign injury to decoy predators away from her vulnerable nestlings.

And the gifting flows from there:

2    Turtle doves = the Old and New Testaments 
3    French hens = faith, hope and charity 
4    Calling birds = the four Gospels 
5    Golden rings = the first five books of the Old Testament, called the Pentateuch
6    Geese a-laying = the six days of creation 
7    Swans a-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit 
8    Maids a-milking = the eight Beatitudes 
9    Ladies dancing = the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit 
10  Lords a-leaping = the Ten Commandments 
11  Pipers piping = the eleven faithful apostles 
12  Drummers drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles’ Creed

Twelve Days of Christmas Poster

Again, the above meaning associated with each gift may or may not belong to the author’s original intent. There is no conclusive historical evidence either way. But that hardly matters. The song offers us a way to prayerfully and gratefully attend to each of the twelve days, considering how the gifts of God are for the people of God.

One way to deepen the experience of Christmas might be to take a few quiet minutes each morning to consider each day’s gift and the giver who gives it. Contemplate the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. Go online to research the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, then write them down and spend some time in prayer, inspired (en-Spirited) by each one. Consider the Ten Commandments and thank God for the good society they make possible. Locate and read a reflective article on the Apostles’ Creed, then pray each tenet as the Spirit prompts.

In doing so, you will nurture the twin virtues of generosity and gratitude, which are the flattering “gay apparel” of a person whose soul knows God.

The following song was inspired by a poem written by my friend’s son in a grace-filled moment of contemplative gratitude. It may provide an ambient soundtrack when considering how God’s fair fingerprints are all over each and every good gift.

Music by Steve Bell
Lyrics by Matt Richardson and Steve Bell
Appears of the 2011 CD release: Steve Bell / Kindness (Signpost Music)

Purchase Original Album  Purchase Pilgrim Year Companion CD

On ceaseless, rippling waves I gaze 
And hear sonorant, soothing, splashing 
Stilled senses resolute to praise 
And revel in whose surf is crashing

I see in rocks, in sands and swell 
In highest cliff and lowest crater 
In broken shards of pearly shell 
Fair fingerprints of the Creator

And I, onshore admire this living scripture 
And adore the painter of this picture 
I adore the gifting and the Giver 
The gifting and the Giver

Eternal waves incessant fall 
Falling, they fall no sight to ending 
I sit on sand and ponder all 
My senses overwhelmed, transcending

And I, onshore admire this living scripture 
And adore the painter of this picture 
I adore the gifting and the Giver 
The gifting and the Giver


  1. Carol Achampong

    Very interesting. I never heard of these explanations and will research into it.
    Thanks and happy new year!
    God bless!

  2. Kathryn A. Kazmaier

    Blogs animated by pictures are especially meaningful, but your blog, animated by song pierces the soul and moves me to praise the Giver! Thank you!!

  3. Nora

    Thanks for sharing this. It was timely and gave a much deeper meaning to what before seemed like a funny Christmas song.

    I got the Pilgrim Year set and this inspires me to get started on it and to see what else I will find and learn from.

  4. Pauline Stevens

    When I began to listen I was thinking hmmm heard better from you Steve. But, after the first course played I was engaged. Beautifully written and sang. My connection to this song was undeniable by the end and now I play it over and over. Thank you my friend.

  5. Andrea Loewen

    Thank you for this beautiful song and reflection.
    I am contemplating the Christmas season in snowy, wooded Cranbrook BC. At the same time I am admiring my sister’s holiday pictures at the beach down south. Your song serendipitously evoked the rolling surf and filled my heart with joy! God is good….everywhere.

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