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There is a theory that the 12 days of Christmas is a catachism song used to teach the tenants of the Catholic faith in the days when the Catholic Church was banned in England. The symbolism allegedly goes like this:
A Partridge in a Pear Tree - Jesus Christ
Two Turtle Doves - The Old and New Testaments
Three French Hens - The three virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity
Four Calling/Collie Birds - Four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
Five Golden Rings - First five books of the Old Testament
Six Geese-a-Laying - Six days of creation before God's rest on the seventh day
Seven Swans-a-Swimming - Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit
Eight Maids-a-Milking - Eight Beatitudes
Nine Ladies Dancing - Nine fruits of the Holy Spirit
Ten Lords-a-Leaping - Ten Commandments
Eleven Pipers Piping - Eleven faithful disciples
Twelve Drummers Drumming -Twelve points of belief in the Apostles' Creed
The problem with this theory is that it's more likely than not that the song is French in origin, not English, and was originally a memory game song where the leader would add increasingly complicated verses that folks had to repeat back, and that the verses weren't neccessarily uniform until the song was first written down in the late 1780's. There's no indication in either written records or oral tradition that this symbolism existed until 1979.
As for the Ring-necked Pheasant hypothesis - the problem with that is first that Ring-necked Pheasants don't have golden rings around their neck, they have white rings and second, that Ring-necked Pheasants aren't called Ring-necked Pheasants in England or France, they're called Common Pheasants. If I had to choose any bird species, it would be a Goldfinch, also called by some a Gold Spink and only if I were to believe that who ever wrote down Ring for Spink wasn't corrected by a lot of people who had always said Spink.
As for when the 12 days of Christmas are, that really depends on your tradition - what's more important are the 12 nights of Christmas. The first night of Christmas is always the 25th which means the 12th night of Christmas is always January 5, the night before the Epiphany. In many traditions, the 12th Day of Christmas ends with the 12th Night of Christmas, so the 1st Day of Christmas would be the 25th of December and the last Day of Christmas would be the day before the Epiphany. For most of these traditions, the 12 Dayes of Christmas is a time for joyful reveling which ends the day before the Epiphany which is a more solemn occassion. But there are still some traditions that say the 1st day of Christmas follows the 1st Night of Christmas which makes the 12th Day of Christmas Epiphany.
Of course in the US, the first day of Christmas begins the day after Labor Day when the first Christmas decorations appear in the stores and end on December 25th.