December - 2013

Twelve Days of Christmas

When most people hear the phrase ‘The Twelve days of' Christmas’ they don’t so much think of the 12 days starting from Christmas Day leading to Epiphany, instead they think of the song of the same name. Christmas wouldn’t be the same without it!

It has been suggested that this song had its origins as a teaching tool for Roman Catholics to instruct young people in the meaning and content of the Christian faith. From 1558 to 1829 Roman Catholics in England were not able to practice their faith openly, so they had to find other ways to pass on their beliefs. One suggestion is the song ‘The Twelve days of Christmas’ is one example of how they did it.

The song goes, and the possible meaning goes:
On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me”…
The "true love" represents God and the "me" who receives these presents is the Christian.
The "partridge in a pear tree" was Jesus Christ who died on a tree as a gift from God.
The "two turtle doves" were the Old and New Testaments another gift from God.
The "three French hens" were faith, hope and love - the three gifts of the Spirit that abide.
The "four calling birds" were the four Gospels, which sing the song of salvation through Jesus Christ.
The "five golden rings" were the first five books of the Bible, also called the 'Book of Moses'.
The "six geese a laying" were the six days of creation.
The "seven swans a swimming" were seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (Faith, Hope, Charity, Justice, Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude).
The "eight maids a milking" were the eight beatitudes.
The "nine ladies dancing" were the nine fruit of the Holy Spirit.
The "ten Lords a leaping" were the Ten Commandments.
The "eleven pipers piping" were the eleven faithful disciples.
The "twelve drummers drumming" were the twelve points of the Apostles' Creed.

‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ is a cumulative song, meaning that each verse is built on top of the previous verses. There are twelve verses, each describing a gift given by "my true love" on one of the twelve days of Christmas. The earliest known version of these lyrics was published under the title The Twelve Days of Christmas sung at King Pepin's Ball, as part of a 1780 children's book titled Mirth without Mischief.

However, there is not a lot of evidence that this ‘Catholic Catechism Theory’ is anything but a wild speculation. The first time it was suggested was only in 1979 by a Canadian Hymnologist, Hugh D. McKellar. He offered no evidence for his claim and subsequently admitted that the purported associations were his own invention. This story has however spread in Christian circles ever since. It is worth noting that none of the enumerated items would distinguish Catholics from Protestants, and so would hardly need to be secretly encoded anyway!

What a pity! It’s a good story to think about as you are hearing or singing the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ yet again over the Christmas period. Apart from a good sing, you might have put actual meaning and sense to a rather meaningless set of words!

Christmas is a strange mixture of traditions, many of which we do because we have always done them - whether or not they make a lot of sense, and also a deep and important declaration that God has become human. So celebrate! In the midst of Christmas pudding and presents, carols and turkey lies an earthshattering truth. Celebrate that God is with us.


December 2013