Many of America’s present-day Christmas customs were in place by the mid 1800’s. Our trip to small New England towns lets me easily visualize sleighs full of carolers dashing through the snow singing their hearts out. But out West, the mountain man and lone cowboy had to make do all by their lonesome, in freezing weather and often a blizzard. Soldiers might gather together at the fort to roast venison and join in song. Farms and ranches were miles apart, so most caroling likely took place inside a cozy homestead with the family members.
At our house, most of the caroling took place as lullabies when our kids were little. My son’s all-time favorite was The Twelve Days of Christmas. Each line, each verse, each refrain. He knew it all, so I couldn’t get away with skipping one single line. I was aware of the medieval images of the song itself, but I didn’t know until recently that the song has a sacred meaning. The odd gifts mentioned all have a “double life.”
Although our local malls and radio stations are currently offering gimmicks each day for the “twelve days of Christmas” right now, prior to December 25, the twelve days traditionally start December 26, on St. Stephen’s Day, with celebration ending end on January 6, the feast if the Epiphany, or visit of the Magi. The custom began in England, starting with the lighting of the Yule log on Christmas Eve, which stayed burning until Twelfth Night, a time of great festivity.
From 1558 to a Parliamentary decree in 1829, Roman Catholics in England were prohibited from public practices of their faith.
So the enoyable carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” developed as a “catechism song” or teaching aid to help children learn the tenets of their faith. The song’s gifts are hidden meanings. First off, the “true love” isn’t an earthly suitor, but God Himself.
First Day: The partridge, known as a valiant bird willing to fight to the death to defend its young, represents Jesus, and the pear tree, the cross.
Second Day: Two meanings here: Doves, required as sacrifice in Jewish Law and offered by Mary and Joseph when Jesus was 40 days old, symbolized either His later sacrifice…or the Old and New testaments.
Third Day: The three French hens refer to the holy Trinity, to the three valuable gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, brought by the wise man, and the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity.
Fourth Day: Four calling birds were reminders of the first four books of the New Testament, the four Gospels that proclaim Jesus’ life and teachings.
Fifth Day: Five golden rings recall the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch.
Sixth Day: Six geese a’laying symbolizes the six days of creation. In many cultures, eggs stand for “new life.” It can also signify the six days of the working week, with Sunday reserved for worship.
Seventh Day: The seven swimming swans stand both for the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit that help “ugly ducklings” grow into God’s children, or the seven sacraments.
Eighth Day: The eight maids a’milking show the nurturing of the Beatitudes written in Matthew 5. It can also refer to the eight people saved on Noah’s ark.
Ninth Day: Nine ladies dancing represent the nine fruits of the Spirit mentioned in Galatians 5, love, joy, peace, patience kindness goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.
Tenth Day: The ten lords a’leaping symbolize the Ten Commandments.
Eleventh Day: The pipers piping signify the eleven faithful apostles.
Twelfth Day: And last but not least, the twelve drummers marked the twelve points of belief in the Apostles Creed, and also represent the twelve tribes of Israel.
Have you heard any of these double meanings before? I loved learning this and couldn’t resist passing it on. But even with the sacred theme today, I also can’t resist a re-write of this great song in Western terms. Wanna play? How about let’s start out with…a roadrunner in a piñon pine tree? Who wants to take on Day Two? (No symbolism required.)
And to you and yours, best wishes for a blessed, safe, a meaningful Christmastide!