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Urban Legends

"The Twelve Days of Christmas"

The Legend

From a 1988 Our Lady of Perpetual Virginity church bulletin

"The Twelve Days of Christmas" is a fun Christmas song, but it was originally written in the 1920s as a mnemonic device for the first organized group of bomb disposal experts. These professionals, pioneers in their field whose work benefits us to this day, referred to time-triggered explosives left unattended as "gifts," and wrote "Twelve Days" to help new recruits remember the twelve steps for dealing with such dangerous "presents."

The steps, in abbreviated form for a lay audience, were:

# Item Meaning

1

Partridge in a pear tree

Locate the device ("find the bird in its tree")

2

Turtle Doves

Check for booby traps. This is a reference to the old practice of bringing doves or other birds into a coal mine so that they can warn of gas leaks.

3

French Hens

Send the most expendable member of the team in to examine the device closely.

4

Calling Birds

Call in the most experienced member of the team to receive a report of the device's type and condition.

5

Golden Rings

Develop a plan of attack based on the senior members' experience.

6

Geese A-laying

Send the most expendable member of the team back in to execute the plan.

7

Swans A-swimming

Attempt to defuse the device by "swimming" through its wiring layout, looking for weaknesses.

8

Maids A-milking

Exploit any found weaknesses, keeping within the constrictions of the plan of attack.

9

Ladies Dancing

If the bomb can not be defused, run away.

10

Lords A-leaping

Clear the area.

11

Pipers Piping

"Pipe in" water to cover the device, if possible.

12

Drummers Drumming

Blow it up in a controlled manner. (The explosion sound is likened to the beating of a drum.)

So the next time you sing this joyous song, remember in your hearts both the glorious Christmas season and the heroic men and women of the bomb-disposal squad who risk their lives that we may be safe.


Behind the Legend

On the surface, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is just an annoying, repetitive tune designed to delight children and drive parents to distraction, along the lines of classics such as "100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall," "it's a small world," and, "B-I-N-G-O." However, it does have a "hidden" meaning -- just not the one proposed in the above legend.

The song was created by long-ago Catholics for a very serious reason. When the Protestants were in charge of England during the 17th and 18th centuries, it was illegal to be a "real" Christian. If they found out you weren't a Protestant, they would punish you by killing you, throwing your family out of their house, and burning all your stuff. (There's a famous story about a little boy whose things are all going to be burned because he's Catholic and he sees his favorite toy bunny come to life and escape the fires, an allegory for the resurrection of Jesus and the root of several Easter traditions.)

During that time, Catholics needed a way to record the tenants of their faith and pass them down to their children, hence "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was written. Because the song could be sung without punishment (the Protestants also celebrated Christmas, in their way), it was a good way for children to practice what their parents preached.

The parts of the song and their meanings were this:

# Item Meaning

1

Partridge in a pear tree

Jesus on the cross

2

Turtle Doves

The two thieves on the crosses next to Jesus

3

French Hens

Jesus coming back to life three days later (approximately)

4

Calling Birds

The four things we don't talk about (Joseph was a terrible carpenter, Jesus had siblings, the Apostles were gay, Jesus was Jewish)

5

Golden Rings

The five pieces of gold given to Judas to betray Jesus

6

Geese A-laying

Six of the Apostles (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Saul, Paul)

7

Swans A-swimming

Jesus plus the other six Apostles (Peter, the other John, Judas, Ezekiel, Joseph, Pilate)

8

Maids A-milking

The eight ways of getting into heaven (acts, works, piety, chastity, humility, massive donations, indulgences, forced conversion)

9

Ladies Dancing

The nine sacraments (baptism, confession, communion, permanent and irrevocable marriage, anointing of the sick, anointing of the really sick from a distance, rejection of contraception, adoration of altar boys, last rites)

10

Lords A-leaping

The ten saints at Jesus' right hand (St. Mary, St. The Other Mary, St. Joseph, St. Christopher, St. John the Baptist, St. Peter the Humble, St. Monique the Bold, St. Cedric the Entertainer, St. Pope Innocent of All Charges, St. Ringo)

11

Pipers Piping

The ten commandments

12

Drummers Drumming

The twelve steps of recovery from paganism (recognizing a different higher power, etc.)


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