What Are the Twelve Days of Christmas?

Myths and reality

The Twelve Days of Christmas: The Christmas Song

Everybody knows what the Twelve Days of Christmas are, right? After all, we've been singing the Christmas song since we were old enough to talk:

On the First Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me
A partridge in a pear tree.

As the song progresses, the lucky recipient piles up gifts, each day receiving what he or she received the day before, as well as a new item—or rather items, since the generous giver pegs the quantity of his gifts to the number of the days of Christmas:

  • Two turtledoves
  • Three French hens
  • Four collie birds (blackbirds; often mispronounced as "calling birds")
  • Five golden rings
  • Six geese a-laying
  • Seven swans a-swimming
  • Eight maids a-milking
  • Nine ladies dancing
  • Ten lords a-leaping
  • Eleven pipers piping
  • Twelve drummers drumming

The Twelve Days of Christmas: A Catholic Catechism?

But wait! There's more. In 1995, Fr. Hal Stockert, a Byzantine Catholic priest from Granville, New York, published a short piece on the website of the Catholic Information Network entitled The Twelve Days of Christmas: An Underground Catechism. Father Stockert claimed that the "delightful nonsense rhyme set to music . . . had a quite serious purpose when it was written." Referring to the years 1558-1829, when the practice of Catholicism was officially outlawed in England, Father Stockert claimed to have uncovered evidence that "'The Twelve Days of Christmas' was written in England as one of the 'catechism songs' to help young Catholics learn the tenets of their faith." Each of the gifts, Father Stockert declared, represented one of the truths of the Catholic Faith:

  • 1 patridge in a pear tree = Jesus Christ, the Son of God
  • 2 turtledoves = the Old and New Testaments
  • 3 French hens = the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity
  • 4 calling birds [sic] = the four gospels and/or the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)
  • 5 golden rings = the first five books of the Old Testament
  • 6 geese a-laying = the six days of creation
  • 7 swans a-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and/or the seven sacraments
  • 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 11 faithful disciples (minus Judas, who betrayed Christ)
  • 12 drummers drumming = the 12 points of doctrine in the Apostles' Creed

The Twelve Days of Christmas: An Urban Legend?

There's only one problem: As David Emery, the expert at About Urban Legends, explains in Is 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' an Underground Catechism Song?, Father Stockert had no evidence to back up his claims. As Father Stockert correctly notes, "to be caught with anything in *writing* indicating adherence to the Catholic faith could not only get you imprisoned, it could get you hanged, or shortened by a head—or hanged, drawn and quartered," yet almost all of the points of doctrine that young Catholic children supposedly needed "The Twelve Days of Christmas" to help them memorize were shared with the Anglican Church. Moreover, there are glaring errors in Father Stockert's list: He uses the mistaken "calling birds," which conveniently matches up with the four evangelists, while the correct "collie birds" does not; and the Catholic Church recognizes 12 fruits of the Holy Spirit, not nine.

For more information on why we can be sure "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was not an "underground catechism song," see David Emery's article and a similar piece (though with additional information) at Snopes.com. Called to document his claims, and finding himself unable to do so, Father Stockert himself eventually added a P.S. to his article:

P.S. It has come to our attention that this tale is made up of both fact and fiction. Hopefully it will be accepted in the spirit it was written. As an encouragement to people to keep their faith alive, when it is easy, and when any outward expressions of their faith could mean their life. Today there are still people living under similar conditions, may this tale give them courage, and determination to use any creative means at their disposal to keep their faith alive.

The Twelve Days of Christmas: A Season of Feasts

Despite Father Stockert's own acknowledgment of his mistake, years later Catholics in the United States (in particular) continue to spread this urban legend every Christmas season, and well-intentioned priests and parish secretaries dutifully reprint it in their parish bulletins. While little harm (other than the perpetuation of historical misinformation) is likely to come from the "Twelve Days of Christmas" myth, it would be better to use that space in the bulletin to encourage parishioners to celebrate the real Twelve Days of Christmas—the period between Christmas Day and Epiphany, in which we celebrate some of the most important, interesting, and spiritually symbolic feasts of the entire liturgical year.

You can find a list of those feasts below, along with links to learn more about each feast.

A partridge in a pear tree. (Stockbyte/Getty Images)
Stockbyte/Getty Images

The First Day of Christmas is, of course, Christmas Day—the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (It is not December 13 or 14, as so many "12 Days of Christmas" countdowns incorrectly assume.)  More »

Mosaic of Saint Stephen, Protomartyer
St. Stephen Walbrook church interior, City of London, Mosaic of Saint Stephen, tiled floor. Neil Holmes/Getty Images

On the Second Day of Christmas, we celebrate the feast of Saint Stephen, Deacon and Martyr—the first Christian to die for his faith in Christ. For that reason, he is often called protomartyr—that is, the "first martyr." (Likewise, he is often called protodeacon, because he is the first of the deacons mentioned in the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.) More »

Close-up of a mural of a saint on a wall, John the Evangelist, Patmos, Dodecanese Islands, Greece
Close-up of a mural of a saint on a wall, John the Evangelist, Patmos, Dodecanese Islands, Greece. Glowimages/Getty Images

On the Third Day of Christmas, we celebrate the life of Saint John the Evangelist, "the disciple whom Christ loved," and the only one of the Apostles not to die a martyr's death. Still, he is honored as a martyr for the incidents that he suffered while proclaiming the Faith of Christ. More »

04
of 12

The Fourth Day of Christmas: The Holy Innocents

The Holy Innocents stained glass
The slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Stained glass window, Sacred Heart Basilica, Paray-le-Monial. Godong/Getty Images

On the Fourth Day of Christmas, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Innocents, all of the young boys slaughtered at the command of King Herod, when he hoped to kill the newborn King of the Jews—Jesus Christ.

05
of 12

The Fifth Day of Christmas: St. Thomas Becket, Bishop and Martyr

Murder of Thomas Becket
The murder of St. Thomas Becket. Corbis via Getty Images/Getty Images

On the Fifth Day of Christmas, we celebrate the faith of St. Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, who was martyred for his defense of the rights of the Church against King Henry II.

06
of 12

The Sixth Day of Christmas: The Holy Family

The Holy Family, St. Thomas More Catholic Church, Decatur, GA. (© flickr user andycoan; CC BY 2.0)
Icon of the Holy Family in the Adoration Chapel, St. Thomas More Catholic Church, Decatur, GA. Flickr user andycoan; licensed under CC BY 2.0)

On the Sixth Day of Christmas, we celebrate the Holy Family: the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus; Saint Joseph, His foster father; and Christ Himself. Together, they form the model for all Christian families.

07
of 12

The Seventh Day of Christmas: Saint Silvester I, Pope

On the Seventh Day of Christmas, we celebrate the life of Saint Silvester, the pope who reigned during the incredibly tumultuous times of the Donatist schism and the Arian heresy, in the first third of the fourth century. 

An icon of the Theotokos, the Mother of God. (Photo © Slava Gallery, LLC; used with permission.)
An icon of the Theotokos, the Mother of God. Egg tempera on wood, Central Russia, mid-1800s. Slava Gallery, LLC;

On the Eighth Day of Christmas—January 1—we celebrate one of the most important feasts of the entire year: the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. We remember in a special way this day the role that the Blessed Virgin Mary played in our salvation and are reminded that her life is the best example that Christians have of devotion to Jesus Christ. More »

09
of 12

The Ninth Day of Christmas: Ss. Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen, Bishops

Mosaic of Byzantine fathers of the church.
The Byzantine Fathers of the Church, including Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen. Print Collector/Getty Images

On the Ninth Day of Christmas, we celebrate two of the original Eastern Doctors of the Church: Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen. Both bore witness to the orthodox Christian teaching in the face of the Arian heresy.

10
of 12

The Tenth Day of Christmas: The Most Holy Name of Jesus

Sagrada Familia Basilica
Dan Herrick / Getty Images

On the Tenth Day of Christmas, we venerate the Holy Name of Jesus, at which "every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" (Philippians 2:10-11).

11
of 12

The Eleventh Day of Christmas: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

Medals for American Roman Catholic Saint
Medals of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

On the Eleventh Day of Christmas, we celebrate St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, or Mother Seton (as she is often known), who was the first native-born American saint.

Philadelphia, Shrine of Saint John Neumann
Shrine of Saint John Neumann, Philadelphia. The body of the first U.S. Catholic saint lies beneath the altar. Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas, we anticipate the feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord, the day on which Christ's divinity was revealed to the Gentiles, in the form of the Three Wise Men. We also commemorate the life of St. John Neumann, the first (non-native-born) American saint. More »