When most people think of "The 12 Days of Christmas," they think of the song. The song's origins are unclear, but one story, which has little historical support but is fun to consider, claims that the song originated as a Roman Catholic "Catechism Song" during a time when Catholicism was "discouraged" in England (1558-1829). According to this tradition,
- The "true love" in the song refers to God, while the "me" refers to those who receive the gifts mentioned in the song from God
- The "partridge in a pear tree" refers to Jesus Christ whose death on a tree (i.e., the cross) was a gift from God
- The "two turtle doves" refer to the Old and New Testaments - another gift from God
- The "three French hens" refer to "faith," "hope" and "love" three gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 13)
- The "four calling birds" refer to the four Gospels, which sing "the song of salvation through Jesus Christ"
- The "five golden rings" refer to the first five books of the Old Testament, also known as the Torah.
- The "six geese a-laying" refer to the six days of creation
- The "seven swans a swimming" refer to the "seven gifts of the Holy Spirit." (1 Corinthians 12:8-11)
- The "eight maids a milking" refer to the eight beatitudes
- The "nine ladies dancing" refer to the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23)
- The "ten lords a-leaping" refer to the Ten Commandments
- The "eleven pipers piping" refer to the eleven faithful disciples
- The "twelve drummers drumming" refer to the twelve points of the Apostles' Creed
For a more scholarly (but almost certainly less entertaining) take on the song's origins see its Wikipedia article.
Note: If you add up the number of gifts for each of the twelve days (i.e., one on the first day, three on the second, six on the third, and so on) you get 364, which (of course) is the total number of days in the year if you don't count Christmas (got that from a Hallmark movie).