UPDATE: Thanks to a friend, I have been informed that apparently the so-called Catholic origins of this song and encoded meaning is a fanciful myth. Read here. If someone has some research to back up these claims, please send them my way. My apologies for spreading the myth. :)
Ever wonder what this Christmas carol is about? From 1558 until 1829 CE, Roman Catholics in England were not allowed to practice their faith openly. Someone during that era wrote this carol as catechism song for young Catholics. It has two levels of meaning; the surface meaning, plus a hidden meaning known only to members of their church.
Each element in the carol has a code word for a religious reality, which the children could remember.
a.. The partridge in a pear tree was Jesus Christ.
b.. Two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments.
c.. Three French hens stood for faith, hope and love.
d.. The four calling birds were the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
e.. The five golden rings recalled the Torah or Law, the first five books of the Old Testament.
f.. The six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation.
g.. Seven swans a-swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit: Prophesy, Serving, Teaching, Exhortation, Contribution, Leadership, and Mercy.
h.. The eight maids a milking were the eight beatitudes.
i.. Nine ladies dancing were the nine fruits of the Holy Ghost: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, Self-control.
j.. The ten lords a-leaping were the Ten Commandments.
k.. Eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful disciples.
l.. Twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in the Apostles’ Creed.
So there is your history lesson for today. I found this interesting and now I know how this “very strange” song became a xmas carol.