Get Inspired: The Meaning Behind the 12 Days of Christmas


People in the United States are fascinated by the song “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Every year it’s played over and over again on the radio. It’s googled countless times. And it’s often listed as one of the top Christmas songs.

For the longest time, I couldn’t understand why. To be honest, I found the song annoying and would turn it off whenever it came on. But, curious as to the reason for its popularity, I decided to take a deeper look.

Surprisingly, what I learned inspired me to transform the way I experience Christmas in three ways.

Let me explain . . .

1. Christmas deserves more than just one day of celebration. It deserves twelve.

To this point in my life, I have let the secular culture dictate how I celebrate Christmas. I dive headfirst into the Christmas rush. I buy all the presents, eat all the cookies, and watch all the Christmas specials.

On the day itself, I try to fit all of my Christmas celebrations into one 24-hour frenzy. And every year I go to bed on Christmas exhausted and wondering if I really did Christmas justice.

The answer, of course, is no. Even the very title of the song “The 12 Days of Christmas” reminds me that God has a much bigger and better dream for how I celebrate Christmas. So this year I am going to make a few changes . . .

The culture says the best way to show love is by buying stuff. But God says, “the greatest among you will be your servant” (Mt 23:11).

The year, in addition to buying presents for loved ones, I am going to spend one afternoon in the service of others.

The culture says I have to fill my time with surface-level interactions. But God says, “Put out into the deep water . . .” (Luke 5:4).

This year, I’m trading countless 2-minute conversations for intentional carefree timelessness with loved ones spread out over 12 days.

The culture says Christmas has little to do with the birth of Jesus. But God “so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).

This year, instead of squeezing Mass into my busy schedule, I am going to plan the 12 Days of Christmas around Mass to thank God for the gift of his Son Jesus.

Christmas deserves more than just one day of celebration. It deserves 12. How will God change the way you celebrate the birth of his Son?

2. The Secret to a Great Christmas is Gratitude

If “The 12 Days of Christmas” is anything, it’s repetitive. It’s likely why I found it so annoying. Hearing the same gifts repeated over and over again can get old pretty quickly. But there is wisdom in repetition. For instance, repetition reveals the power of gratitude.

Without gratitude what was extraordinary yesterday becomes ordinary today. And if I am really honest with myself, I have lost a sense of the extraordinary around Christmas.

For example, when I first joined the Catholic Church 5 years ago, I was enthralled by Midnight Mass. There was something about the quiet of the night, the Christmas bells, and the anticipation of the day to come that brought me incredible happiness. Yet last year, I caught myself yawning and fighting the temptation to look at my watch. Somehow I lost my sense of gratitude!

“The 12 Days of Christmas” has inspired me not only to recognize my blessings, but to count them. So, below is my own gratitude list. I encourage you to make your own list, too. And if you're feeling extra grateful for someone this year, say thank you on us with a pack of free gratitude cards.

  1. The gift of life
  2. Good health
  3. Meaningful work
  4. The Catholic Church
  5. A healthy and happy family
  6. Baseball (even though I am a New York Mets fan)
  7. Shelter from the cold and snow
  8. Good food to nourish my body
  9. Spiritual and professional mentor
  10. Living in a free country
  11. The simplicity and quiet of daily Mass
  12. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus

3. True Love Does Exist

Every other Sunday, you can find me at my local parish running a youth group for middle school and high school teens. Our time together is incredible. We have a lot of fun, and each time we get together we have amazing conversations about the genius of Catholicism.

But it didn’t start that way.

In the first year I made little progress with them. No matter how hard I tried or how well I answered their questions, we struggled to connect. One day, I shared my difficulties with a mentor of mine and he asked me a simple but profound question, "Do your kids believe that no matter what they’ve done or who they are today, God loves them?”

I didn’t know the answer to the question, so I decided to ask the teens. Their answers were astonishing. While they had been told their whole lives that God loved them, they didn’t believe it.

From that point on, every talk, every activity, and every trip we took was meant to help them encounter God’s love. And it was an absolute game changer.

There is one phrase repeated more than any other in “The 12 Days of Christmas”: ”My true love gave to me . . .” The “true love” the song refers to is God. And, as Christians, we can never forget that we believe in a God who loves us and wants to shower us with gifts.

“The 12 Days of Christmas” reminds me over and over again that I was created by a loving Father who goes to incredible lengths each day to show me that love. It inspired me to receive that love with a grateful heart and to share it with each person that crosses my path.

. . .

So this year, when “The 12 Days of Christmas” comes on, I won’t turn it off. I’ll turn it up! And I hope you will too.

Have a merry 12 days of Christmas!

P.S. Have you ever heard about the origin of the song?

During the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, it was punishable by death to be Catholic. As the legend goes, Catholic families courageously developed unique ways to secretly pass the faith onto their children, like “The 12 Days of Christmas.”

Allegedly each of the 12 items contains a hidden meaning.

A Partridge in a Pear Tree

Jesus.

Two Turtle Doves

The Old and New Testaments.

Three French Hens

The Three Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope, and Love.

Four Calling Birds

The Four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Five Golden Rings

The First Five Books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.

Six Geese A-Laying

The Six Days of Creation.

Seven Swans A-Swimming

The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, and Fear of the Lord.

Eight Maids A-Milking

The Eight Beatitudes:

  1. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  2. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
  3. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
  4. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
  5. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
  6. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
  7. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.
  8. Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Nine Ladies Dancing

The Nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Generosity, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control.

Ten Lords A-Leaping

The Ten Commandments:

  1. I am the Lord your God: You shall not have strange gods before me.
  2. You shall not take the name of the Lord God in vain.
  3. Remember to keep holy the Lord’s day.
  4. Honor your father and your mother.
  5. You shall not kill.
  6. You shall not commit adultery.
  7. You shall not steal.
  8. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  9. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods.

Eleven Pipers Piping

The Eleven Faithful Apostles: Peter, Andrew, James the Elder, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the Younger, Simon, and Jude.

Twelve Drummers Drumming

Twelve Points of Doctrine in the Apostles’ Creed:

  1. I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
  2. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
  3. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.
  4. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell.
  5. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
  6. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
  7. I believe in the Holy Spirit,
  8. the holy catholic Church,
  9. the communion of saints,
  10. the forgiveness of sins,
  11. the resurrection of the body,
  12. and life everlasting. Amen.

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