From 1558 until 1829, Roman Catholics in England weren't allowed to practice their faith openly. Someone during that era wrote this carol as a catechism song for young Catholic children. It has two meanings--the surface level meaning plus a hidden meaning known only to members of the church. Each element in the carol has a code word for a religious symbol that the children could remember. You'll never sing it the same way again...
1. the partridge in a pear tree was Jesus Christ
2. the two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments
3. the three french hens stood for faith, hope, and love
4. the four calling birds were the four gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
5. the five golden rings recalled the Torah (or Law), the first five books of the Old Testament written by Moses
6. the six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation
7. the seven swans a-swimming stood for the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit--prophecy, serving, teaching, exhortation, giving, leadership, and mercy
8. the eight maids a-milking were the eight beatitudes
9.the nine ladies dancing were the nine fruit of the Spirit--love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control
10. the ten lords a-leaping were the ten commandments
11. the eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful disciples
12. the twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in the Apostles Creed
live for Jesus. laugh uncontrollably. love unconditionally.