This song is really of a profession of faith, especially during the gift-giving season from Christmas to the Epiphany which are the 12 days.
It uses symbolic language. Symbols are meant to point to something else and often to several things. They are meant to be hidden so that only initiates can understand them. This song hides its true meaning very well but it allows you to see as much as you are prepared to see. The better you know and understand your faith, the more you will see in it. Though the meaning with which I am familiar is not the only one, I think it may help us understand it better.
A secret code
When the early Christians were being persecuted, they developed secret codes by which they would recognize one another. For example, the fish was used as a symbol of Christ when the use of the actual word "Christ" to the wrong person could have meant instant death.
After the Protestant Reformation in England, Catholics were forbidden to practise Catholicism. So like the early Christians, they developed secret codes so they could express and convey their beliefs to one another without the enemy realizing that they were Catholics. Singing this song may have been to them like the Creed is today, only expressed in a more whimsical manner.
The "true love" in the song is God and the speaker is an ordinary Christian. The mention of a new gift followed by the repetition of every previous gift shows how God continues to bestow previous gifts while adding new gifts.
The first gift is "a partridge in a pear tree." In the Middle Ages, the mother partridge was considered a symbol of Christ because she will give her life to save her young. The "tree" is a symbol of Adam eating the forbidden fruit but especially of Christ's death on the tree of the cross.
For "two turtle doves," the obvious meaning is the offering of two doves which Mary and Joseph made at presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple. They could also stand for the two Testaments of the Bible.
"Three French hens" which are highly valued but costly represent the three gifts of the wise men to Jesus. They could also depict the three prime or highly valued virtues of faith, hope and charity. "Four calling birds" could refer to the four Gospels and the four major prophets of the Old Testament.
The productive but ungainly "six geese a-laying" suggest the six days of creation, the stage of our everyday, "ungainly" activities. The elegant "seven swans a-swimming" sound like the seven gifts of the Spirit, elegant or heavenly in contrast to ungainly creation. They could also represent the seven works of mercy.
The "eight maids a-milking" provide nourishment as do the eight beatitudes and the eight times a year English Catholics were required to receive Communion. "Nine ladies dancing" could refer to the nine choirs of angels or the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) while "10 lords a-leaping" suggest the Ten Commandments.
The "11 pipers piping" could be the 11 disciples boldly proclaiming Jesus after the Resurrection. The "12 drummers drumming" could be the Old Testament's 12 minor prophets, speaking for God. They may refer also to the 12 points of belief in the Apostles' Creed or the 12 gates of Jerusalem.
You may have noticed that I omitted the "five golden rings." These are the only static, lifeless symbols and special attention is given to them by the music. Only here is the 4/4 rhythm of the opening, as well as the Christ symbol repeated, thus giving the rings special significance. The rings may represent the first five books of the Bible, the Law which was fulfilled by Christ or they may refer to the five obligatory sacraments for Catholics.
Keep the faith
However, they may have an overall deeper meaning, hence the extra attention. Faith is as precious as a golden ring. But like a ring, if stressed or compressed, can lose its perfect circular shape, so too can faith. This was obviously of great concern to persecuted Catholics in England who were being forced to compromise with their faith. Today, compromising our Christian beliefs in a multicultural and consumer society is as great a danger as it was for English Catholics.
Think about this Christmas carol which we have neglected because it does sound strange and you may come up with several aspects of the Christian faith which these symbols represent. And you may see ways to better appreciate and better care for this great gift of faith.