If you're a Catholic living in the United States (or possibly elsewhere), you've undoubtedly seen it at some time in the past two decades, perhaps even in your church bulletin: a list of the lyrics from the Christmas song "The Twelve Days of Christmas," along with the "real meaning" of each item in the list. So, for example, the partridge in a pear tree is said to represent Jesus Christ; the five golden rings are the first five books of the Old Testament; and the twelve drummers drumming are the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles' Creed.
There's only one problem: None of it is true. It all stems from an article published by Fr. Hal Stockert back in 1995 on the website of the Catholic Information Network, and Father Stockert, after being asked to cite his sources, admitted that he didn't have any. (For a good summary of the controversy, see Is 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' an Underground Catechism Song? on David Emery's About.com Urban Legends site.) That's not to say that Father Stockert was trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes; he most likely made his error in good faith, and Snopes.com has even identified a similar rhyme that may have been the source of Father Stockert's confusion.
Since Father Stockert admitted his error years ago, even adding a P.S. to his original article acknowledging that "this tale is made up of both fact and fiction," why does "the true meaning of the Twelve Days of Christmas" still have such appeal today?
I think the answer lies in the healthy desire of Catholics to deepen their sense of the holiness of Christmas. With Advent increasingly eaten up by the secular "holiday season," the Christmas season itself, when it finally arrives, simply disappears. It's the time when we return unwanted presents, toss the Christmas tree to the curb and box up our Christmas decorations, and stock up on booze for New Year's Eve.
It doesn't have to be that way. The Church gave us the Twelve Days of Christmas—the actual feasts between Christmas Day itself and Epiphany, not the silly song—for a reason. Christmas is too important to be confined to a single day. And each of the feasts that we celebrate between Christmas and Epiphany—from Saint Stephen and Saint John the Evangelist and the Holy Innocents to the Holy Family and the Holy Name of Jesus—deepens the real meaning of Christmas itself.
You can learn more about the true meaning of the Twelve Days of Christmas, as well as find the lyrics to the Christmas song and more information on Father Stockert's urban legend, in What Are the Twelve Days of Christmas?