As I wrote about the history of the Octave and the O Anitphons over the last few days, I decided to continue with some more historical Christian musing and articles. Perhaps we’ll even use a liturgical calendar to go through the years and explore some of the older traditions within our faith.
Which, right after Christmas, brings us to the 12 days of Christmas.
Several people I have talked to have always thoughts the 12 days of Christmas lead up to Christmas, with more and more gifts showing up until the final day of Christmas. Not so history teaches us. The 12 days of Christmas traditionally are the 12 days following Christmas until the day of the Epiphany on January 6th. I’ll write an article about that tradition when we get there, but first let’s explore the 12 days of Christmas and the well known song that goes with it.
Now to be honest, it is hard to find accurate historical information on where the song comes from or if there is, and if so what, any hidden meaning in the text of the song.
Let’s focus on the origin of the song. We know it appeared in England somewhere in the late 18th century, although the melody seems to be older than that. The song first seems to have appeared in a book called “Mirth without Mischief”, which was published around 1780. According to research done by Leigh Grant in his book “Twelve Days of Christmas: A Celebration and History”, the song was
a “memory and forfeits game” played by children at that time. The leader recited the first verse, the next child recited the second verse, and this continued until someone missed his or her verse and had to pay some kind of penalty in the game.
So the idea we have that the song is nothing more than a children’s song with silly lyrics seems to be confirmed by this research. Or is it ?
I’m sure many of you have heard the legend that the song was actually a means for Roman Catholics, who were being persecuted in England during this time (remember Henry VIII), used it to memorize critical pieces of their faith. But as you can see from the explanations below, this doesn’t necessarily make sense. The items this song was purportedly supposed to help memorize, are basic tenants of our faith, regardless of whether one is Anglican or Roman Catholic. Hence the so-called need for this song is on very loose foundations. There is no need to secretly memorize something in a hiddend song, if everyone around us believes the same thing.
That being said, here is a list of what the song, again allegdly, is supposed to mean:
A Partridge in a Pear Tree
The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, whose birthday we celebrate on December 25, the first day of Christmas. As Christ sits on His throne, we place Him at the top. It pruportedly is based on the Scripture text: “Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered you under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but you would not have it so . . . .” (Luke 13:34)
Two Turtle Doves
The Old and New Testaments, which together bear witness to God’s self-revelation in history and the creation of a people to tell the Story of God to the world.
Three French Hens
The Three Theological Virtues as found in 1Cor 13:13, Faith, Hope and Love.
Also sometimes explained as the three persons of our Trinitarian faith: Father, Son and Spirit
Four Colly Birds
Yes… it’s not four Calling, but Colly birds. Colly means black and hence it would actually be four blackbirds. Not as poetic, but apparently that’s what the historical text said.
The Four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which proclaim the Good News of God’s reconciliation of the world to Himself in Jesus Christ.
Five Gold Rings
The first Five Books of the Old Testament, known as the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, which gives the history of creation, our sinful nature and fall. It shows us an active and engaged God who respond in grace, mercy and provision to our rebellious state.
Six Geese A-laying
The six days of creation as recounted in Genesis 1.
Eight Maids A-milking
The eight Beatitudes as told by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness. (Matthew 5:2-10)
Nine Ladies Dancing
The nine Fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22)
Ten Lords A-leaping
The ten commandments as given to Moses in Exodus: You shall have no other gods before me; Do not worship idols; Do not take God’s name in vain; Remember the Sabbath Day; Honor your father and mother; Do not murder; Do not commit adultery; Do not steal; Do not bear false witness; Do not covet. (Exodus 20:1-17)
Eleven Pipers Piping
The eleven Faithful Apostles: Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, Judas son of James. (Luke 6:14-16). The list does not include the twelfth disciple, Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus.
Twelve Drummers Drumming
The twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles’ Creed:
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting.
Now whether this explanation is historically accurate or whether it was invented as late as in the 1990’s, I do find it interesting and educational to relate the 12 days following Christmas to basic fundamentals of our Christian faith. Perhaps this is something we can teach our children again.
I hope you enjoyed this, next up… the “feast of the circumcision”.
Twelve Days of Christmas: A Celebration and History, by Leigh Grant, ISBN 0-679-74038-4