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1 Dec 2023

Research reveals hidden meanings behind Christmas carol

Written by Paul Williams
The Castle Fraser library with a green Christmas tree at its centre, decorated with small handcrafted stockings stitched with names, and red and gold ornaments.
The library in Castle Fraser has been decorated with traditional adornments ready to welcome families this Christmas.
An expert from our Collections Care team has identified hidden meanings behind the traditional Christmas carol, 12 Days of Christmas, that is thought to have been used to convey religious symbolism during a period of upheaval in the country.

According to Dr Jo Riley, Visitor Services Assistant from the Trust’s Collections Care team, the popular song – first published in 1780 and originating in France – was written when Catholicism was discouraged and people were prohibited from publicly practising their faith in Scotland. The theory behind the songs suggests that it contains hidden references woven into its verses to provide Catholic teachings when the Presbyterian church had assumed authority over Scotland in 1560, known as the Scottish Reformation.

Dr Riley developed the research as a way of understanding the history and cultural aspects of Christmas celebrations, and it has been used to inform traditional decorations and new festive events including a trail and soundscape at Castle Fraser in Inverurie, Aberdeenshire.

Dr Riley said: ‘Christmas in Scotland was prohibited following an Act of Parliament in 1640 making the celebration of Yule illegal. There was no public holiday on Christmas day, and apart from a brief period in the 17th century, this lasted until 1958. It’s hard to believe that Christmas was outlawed for over 300 years considering how popular the holiday has now become, it demonstrates the significance religion played in people’s lives over different centuries.

“The banning of Christmas celebrations had a huge influence on the growth and popularity of Hogmanay in Scotland, which became the focus of festivities for Scottish people that we’re still recognised for today.”

‘Religious symbolism was hidden in the most inconspicuous of places like hymns such as 12 Days of Christmas and O Come All Ye Faithful. It also featured in festive foods associated with the time of year such as mince pies, with the traditional recipe containing 13 ingredients, believed to represent each of the apostles. Originally developed as long rectangle slices, mince pies were reduced in size so they could fit in pockets and passed between members of the public celebrating Christmas in secret.

‘It’s been rewarding to use my research to inform the new family experiences at Castle Fraser this Christmas. We know that the library would have once been a ‘family room’ and we want to make this an immersive experience for visitors when they enter. The room will be transformed with traditional decorations, made using natural materials collected from the castle’s garden and surrounding estate to provide a faithful recreation of festive adornments, with a family themed tree and an area for play and storytelling. There will be interactive games for children to immerse themselves in the typical activities that would’ve taken place at this time of year by the Fraser family. A further new addition will be a soundscape of life within the castle walls, with chatter, laughter and music played to help recreate a truly authentic Christmas for visitors.

A green leafy garland is used to decorate a medieval fireplace with a stone mantel.
Seasonal foliage from the castle’s gardens and wider estate have been used to recreate authentic Christmas decorations

‘Alongside these activities a new children’s trail themed around the 12 Days of Christmas will take place around the castle showcasing the history of the song, and the messages behind the words will be explained in the Bailiff’s Room. The Chapel and the Bailiff’s Room will focus on some of the older historic messages and Jacobite links to Christmas will be revealed, making the trail interesting and enjoyable for both adults and children.

‘It is our aim to connect people to a part of Scotland’s heritage within these rooms. The interpretation and activities won’t focus on religion but will exemplify how historical events have shaped the celebrations we enjoy in Scotland today. It’s been very rewarding to work on this research project, collaborating with the Gardens team from the outset to discover and connect with our history to create memorable and engaging experiences at Castle Fraser this year – to the extent that they have literally sowed the seeds of historically-linked flowers and foliage around the estate. And also, thanks to our members and supporters that we’re able to continue our work to care for, protect and share Scotland’s cultural heritage for everyone to enjoy.’

A set of table and chairs with Christmas presents on top, with a large blue vase in the centre of the table and a decorated Christmas tree to the left. Floral wall paper, artwork and ornaments are hanging on the walls in the background.
Period Christmas decorations authentic to the Victorian period are displayed in the sitting room.

The traditional past time of singing was enjoyed by many families at Christmas as a means of entertainment. 12 Days of Christmas was considered a memory game and a forfeit had to be paid if a mistake was made when singing the song. While the song offered a fun way for both children and adults to celebrate the time of year, its verses are understood to have hidden Catholic connotations, including:

  • The Partridge – the mother partridge represents Christ. It is thought to be the only bird that will die to protect its young.
  • Two Turtle Doves – signified the old and new testaments, the gift of the complete story of the Christian faith.
  • Three French Hens – signifies faith, hope and love, relating to Corinthians 13, written by the apostle Paul.
  • Four Calling Birds – represents the four gospels Mathew, Mark, Luke and John.
  • Five Gold Rings – is believed to correspond to the five books of the Old Testament.
  • Six Geese-a-Laying – is thought to relate to the first story of the bible, each egg being one of the days of creation, when the world ‘hatched’.
  • Seven Swans-a-Swimming – the beauty of the swan corresponding with the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit; prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion.
  • Eight Maids-a-Milking – conveys the message that even the lowliest receive gifts from God, being a milkmaid was a lowly occupation. The eight who were blessed were those poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and those who are persecuted in the name of righteousness.
  • Nine Ladies Dancing – signify the fruits of the Spirit, of which there are nine: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
  • Ten Lords-a-Leaping – written at a time when lords were also judges, this refers to the ten commandments.
  • Eleven Pipers Piping – discounting Judas who betrayed Jesus and then committed suicide, this line refers to the disciples who remained true and carried the gospel message.
  • Twelve Drummers Drumming – provides a strong catholic analogy to the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles’ Creed

In addition to 12 Days of Christmas, the well-known hymn O Come All Ye Faithful, originally written by John Francis Wade – an 18th-century music scribe who was a known English Jacobite supporter – has also allegedly been used to convey political messages, a call to arms, and religious notions. It was often illustrated with Jacobite floral imagery, such as the white rose, and it is thought to have been sung to celebrate Bonnie Prince Charlie’s birth on 20th December as well as that of Jesus, but as the Jacobite cause waned the relevant associations dwindled.

Visitors to Castle Fraser, Garden and Estate can enjoy the Christmas-themed events, trails and seasonal period decorations until 18 December when the castle will close until Spring 2024, with the garden and grounds of the estate open all year round.

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