Catholics in England during the period 1558 to 1829 (when Parliament finally emancipated Catholics in England), were prohibited from any practice of their faith by law, private or public. It was considered a crime of treason to be a Catholic Christian in unity with the Pope of Rome.
Apparently "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was written in England as one of the "catechism songs" to help young Catholics learn the tenets of their faith - a memory aid, during a time when to be caught with anything in writing indicating adherence to the Catholic faith could not only get you imprisoned, it could get you hanged. [Note: Snopes apparently thinks this bit of history is not true... so take it as you wish.]
The song's gifts are hidden meanings to the teachings of the Faith. The "true love" mentioned in the song doesn't refer to an earthly suitor, it refers to God Himself. The "me" who receives the presents refers to every baptized person.
The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge which feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings, much in memory of the expression of Christ's sadness over the fate of Jerusalem: "Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered thee under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but thou wouldst not have it so..."
The other symbols mean the following:
2. Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments
3. French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4. Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5. Golden Rings = The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the
"Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6. Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7. Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Seven Holy
8. Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9. Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10. Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11. Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12. Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles'
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