Friday, December 31, 2010

Twelve Days of Christmas

The twelve days of Christmas are the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany (January 6th), which is when the three wise men supposedly arrived on the scene. It is NOT the twelve days before Christmas as many erroneously believe. The lovely story following is now considered by the erudite amongst us as an Internet Urban Legend with no basis in fact. However, the "Twelve Days of Christmas" was first found in print in 1790, and was already traditional. Its origin seems to have been French as was the word "carol." Christmas Caroling was derived from the French word "caroller," which means dancing around in a circle. Joyous revelers at Christmastime danced in a circle around the creche, joyously singing Christmas carols. Such holiday celebrating was banned in England during the Protestant Cromwell reign and many of the oldest Christmas songs and their histories were forever lost.

An Underground Catechism 

(from “Drennon’s Twelve Days of Christmas”)

Most folks, I believe, are familiar with the Christmas song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas." If you listen to the words carefully, it seems like nonsence set to rhyme and music. However, it was written with a serious purpose. It is more than just a list of twelve silly gifts. Catholics in England during the period 1558 to 1829 were prohibited by law to practice their faith either in public or private. It was illegal to be Catholic. [Note: Parliament finally emancipated Catholics in England in 1829.]

"The Twelve Days of Christmas" was written in England as one of the "catechism songs" to help young Catholics learn the basics of their faith. In short, it was a memory aid. Since the song sounded like rhyming nonsense, young catholics could sing the song without fear of imprisonment. The authorities would not know that it was a religious song. Actually, the catecism to which it referred was rather ecumenical so could probably be claimed to be protestant if cornered.

The song's gifts had hidden meanings to the teachings of the Catholic faith. The "true love" mentioned in the song doesn't refer to an earthly suitor, but it refers to God Himself. The "me" who receives the presents refers to every baptized person. i.e. the church. The partridge in a pear tree is Christ Jesus, the Son of God. In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge 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..."

Here is a complete list of the 12 symbols with their meanings*

  • 1 Partridge in a pear tree = The One true God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ
  • 2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments
  • 3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity
  • 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 contain the law condemning us of our sins.
  • 6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
  • 7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments of the Catholic faith
  • 8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
  • 9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the 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 Apostle's Creed

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