If you google “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, you’ll get lots of hits for the tale of the “Secret Catechism” allegedly used by persecuted Catholics living in England after Henry VIII broke with Rome.
As quaint as the idea may be, it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
- The “Secret Catechism” meanings assigned to the gifts are doctrines that were shared by Anglican and Roman Catholics, not things that would get a secret Catholic into trouble.
- The “Secret Catechism” legend appears to date from no earlier than 1990.
- The song itself probably originated in Catholic France, not Protestant England.
Apart from the lack of historical evidence, the tale of the “Secret Catechism” doesn’t even make much sense internally.
If the song had ever been a true mnemonic, the various items would have more consistent meanings. But I found “two turtledoves” listed in some places as either the two natures in Jesus (human and divine) or as the Old and New Testaments. “Three French hens” is variously assigned to the Trinity, the Three Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope, Charity), or the three gifts of the Wise Men.
Also, if it had been invented as a memory aid, the gifts would bear some relation to the things they supposedly represent. This is notably lacking in the “Secret Catechism” legend. I mean … what do “lords a’leaping” have to do with the stern “Thou Shalt Not” Ten Commandments? Huh?
Some of the items aren’t even accurate. For example, “eight maids a’milking” is supposedly a reference to the eight Beatitudes … except there are nine Beatitudes. See Matthew 5:3-10 and the Catholic Catechism paragraph 1716.
“Four calling birds” is a mistranslation of original “colly [black as coal] birds.” In Judaeo-Christian symbolism, blackbirds and ravens represent temptation, sin, and the devil, but the “Secret Catechism” supposedly used them to represent the four Gospels. I. Don’t. Think. So.
Finally, “a partridge in a pear tree” is supposed to represent Jesus Christ on the cross, because “a mother partridge feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings.” Except … this is not true. Some species of birds do engage in this “distraction display” behavior … but partridges are not among them.
The fact is … “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is just a traditional counting song whose only saving grace is that it’s not as long or as annoying as “99 Bottles of Beer.”