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The popular Christmas song "The Twelve Days of Christmas" has many different versions, but they're usually something along the lines of the following (final verse, which includes all the others):

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me:
Twelve drummers drumming,
Eleven pipers piping,
Ten lords a-leaping,
Nine ladies dancing,
Eight maids a-milking,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five gold rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

What do these choices of gifts symbolise? What's the deeper significance of each of the twelve types of people, animals, or objects? I seem to remember reading about a Christian significance (the twelve drummers are the twelve apostles, the four calling birds are the four evangelists, and so on). Wikipedia also mentions an interpretation in terms of Catholic catechism, but also cites a source claiming that this is incorrect. I'd be interested in seeing both the evidence for and against this Catholic interpretation, and also any other reasonable interpretation of the song. A good answer would list several different possible symbolic meanings and summarise evidence for/against each one.

  • I'm not sure whether to down-vote this for being out of season or for lack of research. Wikipedia has a pretty exhaustive article on it, but you've probably already been there. :-P – Mick Mar 21 '17 at 0:09
  • @Mick Yes, I had the Wikipedia page open while typing this question. And I assume you were joking about downvoting this for being out of season ... – Rand al'Thor Mar 21 '17 at 0:10
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    Downvoting (and tempted to close) because this question is very broad: one could presumably write an entire answer about each one of those gifts. This question would do better if it was focused on one specific gift – user111 Apr 8 '17 at 5:54
  • @Hamlet You want me to spam the site with twelve closely related questions, each of which would almost certainly be answered in parallel with all the others? I doubt there's any theory about the symbolic meaning of a single one of the gifts which isn't part of a wider theory about the symbolism of all of them. – Rand al'Thor Apr 8 '17 at 9:22
  • Would you be willing to accept that suggestion that there isn't any symbolism and that the words are just nonsense like so many other songs of this type? Why should it mean anything more than Rattling Bog or There's a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea? – Mark Baker Apr 8 '17 at 12:02
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There is no sufficient reason to regard the lines as symbolic at all. Of course, one can never prove absolutely that they were not intended as symbolic by the original author (supposing there was a single original author). But there is no good reason the think these are any more than whimsey.

There will always be the whimsically challenged commentator who can dream up symbolism out of gossamer and moonbeams. (For an example of a whimsically challenged question, and answers, see https://scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/156596/does-hobbes-ever-do-anything-that-calvin-himself-could-not-do.) But being whimsical themselves, if unintentionally so, they are impossible to refute logically. Unless they meet some reasonable standard of demonstration, which much at least include evidence of parallel use of the same symbols in other works (or how is any reader to have recognized these purported symbols?), the refutation is simple denial, which can just as easily be made in blanket form.

Any older text is going to present images that would not occur to us to use in the same context today. This tempts us to ask why the image was used. And this will always tempt some to a symbolic interpretation, because, they will reason, if they don't have a sensible plain meaning, clearly they must have been meant symbolically.

But this is not necessary at all. There is a long tradition of whimsy and nonsense in popular song. It is a form that should be recognized and respected.

There is also, alas, a long tradition of trying to find symbolism in nonsense, something Lewis Carroll satirized in Humpty Dumpty's explanation of Jabberwocky.

Yes, there are ancient works that are clearly symbolic in their intent, but there is a gallon of pure whimsey for every dram of symbolism. Our judgement should always be whimsy until proven symbolic.

Or, to put it another way, Occam's razor applies to literary interpretation as much as to scientific interpretation, and the simplest explanation that fits the available facts in this case is whimsey.

  • Sorry, but I'm not going to award the bounty to this answer unless it's edited to include at least some consideration and refutation of the evidence for specific theories. It's all very well to say things like "there is no good reason" and "there is a long tradition", but if there was a theory of the significance of this song which was far too much of a coincidence to be denied, then all of your general commentary here would still be correct but your main point (which you haven't really provided any evidence for) would be wrong. – Rand al'Thor Apr 15 '17 at 0:53
  • The bounty expires completely in 24 hours. If you edit this answer as suggested before then, I'll give you the bounty; otherwise, I think half of it will be automatically awarded to you anyway. – Rand al'Thor Apr 15 '17 at 0:54

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