The Twelve Days Of Christmas, and beyond….
Dr. RB McFee
Having waited for the “six geese a layin” to provide six golden eggs, instead of five golden rings (ok, which of you geese is holding out on the sixth gold ring?), and wondering if there were any pears on the partridge tree in the winter (am I taking this song too literally?), the lyrics piqued my interest recently, even though I’ve heard, and sang the song for years.
By the way, what did your true love give to you these past 12 days? "(Trick question – Jesus is our true love, and He brought Himself).
But in mere mortal fashion….what did you get these 12 days? My friend married the drummer. My med school was invaded by ducks and geese. Their concert hall hosted ballerinas…ladies dancing. I found a hawk in my dead maple tree, no syrup, no calling birds.
Full disclosure….I like most of the gifts on the list, except having a bunch of nobility leaping about my family room on Christmas morning! Whether the December 25th day, or Epiphany, it had better be late morning! Seriously – who gives dancers, and leapers, and geese that lay jewelry? And after a sleepless night of building toys designed by MIT graduate students, with instructions written for someone sporting a PhD in hieroglyphics, who needs the drummers drumming? And forget the pipers. But I digress.
Can you tell I can’t get that song out of my head? But then, there are worse things to think about!
That said, I started to think about the twelve days of Christmas from a different perspective….two perspectives actually.
Did you ever wonder the history of that lovable, somewhat goofy song? Is “The 12 days of Christmas” a spoof, or based on something far deeper?
And what about celebrating twelve days of Christmas as part of the Nativity season?
In answering both questions, perhaps we can get closer to our Lord, Immanuel.
The gifts make little sense to modern listeners, all satire aside. But like most things we look at from history, context is essential.
No surprise the “12 days” refers to “Twelvetide,” the twelve days between Jesus’ celebrated birth day (December 25th), and Epiphany, also referred to as Three Kings Day (January 6th), although some suggest it ends Epiphany Eve (January 5th).
According to some sources, the lyrics were from a children’s book published in the late 18th century, titled “Mirth without Mischief,” but even then there are twists and turns to the story. Some suggest the lyrics may have emerged from a French story. And the melody was added later, after the lyrics became a basis for party games.
And, the initial lyrics were not exactly what they have evolved into for more contemporary ears. For example the calling birds were originally colly birds, a colloquialism for coal colored, or dark birds, e.g. blackbirds. Oh and some versions had a peacock, not partridge in the pear tree.
Then around the turn of the 20th century, Frederic Austin wrote the lyrics we have become familiar with in our annual caroling.
Some think the gifts represent Biblically important symbols. There are info sites that suggest Catholic clerics used the familiar lyrics as representative for theologically important, but perhaps unsafe topics, as there were places Christians – Catholic or otherwise – were threatened.
I’ve read one such list of Biblical themes associated with the song, and it is lovely. Whether it started or evolved for sub Rosa safety reasons, or someone just thought it would be a blessing for others to think in those terms, I leave that to you.
More importantly the use of songs to celebrate our Savior, to bring attention to His birth, to “Hark” and “Herald” and “Gloria in excelsis Deo” the entry of our Heavenly God into the world of earthbound humans. The very notion of praise through music that we do unabashedly at Christmas more than any other time of the year perhaps this is the true power of “The 12 Days of Christmas,” or any other Christmas carol.
One wonders how happy our Lord would be if we sang His praises as freely, outside of church, and outside of Christmas?
To be sure, celebrating “The 12 days of Christmas” from a Biblical or Christian perspective, can only help us enhance our relationship with Jesus, and take that with us into a weary world. After all, isn’t Christmas our time of birth, too, and a time we can reflect His Star, His Light to brighten the darkness?
That said, here is the list of Biblical themes behind the actual words from “The 12 Day of Christmas,” that seems consistent across sources. (By the way, I’m starting with the twelfth day and working backwards. Let’s just assume we’ve all sung on the x day, my true love, etc. etc. etc…..)
12 Drummers drumming are the 12 points of the Apostle’s Creed
11 Pipers piping are the 11 Apostles
10 Lords a leaping are the 10 commandments, the 10 laws God gave us
9 Ladies dancing are nine fruits of the Holy Spirit
8 Maids a milking are the eight beatitudes
7 swans a swimming are the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the 7 sacraments
6 geese a laying are the six days of creation
5 golden rings are the 5 books of the Pentateuch
4 calling birds are the four gospels
3 French hens are faith, hope and charity (Some suggest it was inspired by Corinthians 13:13)
2 turtle doves are the 2 Testaments
The Partridge in the pear tree is Jesus (Some suggest this was inspired by Matthew 23:37)
Personally what matters is the notion that in this song we see God in the every day events – trees, birds, rings, dancers - and celebrate our Savior through song. If the “12 days” lyrics remind us of the Lord, and all He does for us, then how that symbolism got to us becomes far less relevant, than we spend time singing praise joyfully to the Almighty.
Moreover, it dawns on me that seeing the Lord in the songs we sing, whether some lyrics are a Catholic subtext in The 12 Days of Christmas, where the different days and gifts correspond to Jesus and something Biblical or His ministry, or thinking that the birds outside our window chirping are offering “hallelujah,” to the newborn King, regardless what brings us back to the Christmas in our soul, we are thinking about our Savior, honoring Him, and strengthening our relationship with Jesus.
THE ACTUAL 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS
As people of faith we deal with a variety of calendars.
First there is the secular - commercial calendar that starts Christmas somewhere around Halloween, and ends it at the stroke of midnight welcoming December 26th. Then there is the liturgical calendar where we celebrate Advent, in sacred and heartfelt anticipation of rejoicing in Immanuel – God born into the world as Jesus. And then there is the Christmas Season of the 12 days.
Either way have you thought of the spiritual value of these twelve days?
Jesus, our worship of, celebration for, and relationship with is a lifelong endeavor. Christmas – praising God’s Son is much more than a 24 hour sensibility. Since Jesus is more than a mere person, doesn’t He deserve more than one day of celebrations and reflections? Actually some Cromwell Puritans thought that way.
Put differently, if it took Jesus twelve years to figure out Who He was – God’s Son - and another 18 years to figure out how to fulfill that role, it seems to me we as mere mortals need time to process the great Gift God gave us, and our responsibility to our Lord. Perhaps that is why the 12 days?
We can understand Epiphany – the time the church celebrates Jesus’ visitation by the Magi, the Three Kings. We can understand the darkness of winter being broken up by the pageantry and celebratory fetes of 12th Night, but is there more?
Consider Advent – that is a time of preparation where we can wrap our minds and hearts around the notion God came to us, right where we are, and continues to do so in our personal lives. So is it any less important for us to take some time to process how we embrace and welcome God into our life once born?
Could it be that we need the twelve days to focus on God’s great Gift – Himself incarnate as Jesus, to truly process, and experience this monumental event to bless all mankind?
Could it be to contemplate the implications of a God Who loved us so much He exchanged a throne for a manger, to become our personal Savior?
Could it be to focus on the moments immediately after Jesus’ birth – those days when the world changed forever?
Could it be that our spirit became born in Bethlehem, and we walk with Mary and Joseph to the Temple, as Jesus is presented to the faith? Is it to focus on Anna and Simeon, and what they, too, are trying to teach you and me about Jesus, and Who He is for us?
Could it be to recapture the miracle, the power, the awe of Christmas, as we leave our pain at the inn, and claim our joy at the manger?
Could it be to extend our joy in a season that is all about hope? Could it be to remind us Jesus is too big for one day, one month, or one season?
One of my favorite proclamations is in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The reclaimed, ‘post Christmas Spirits Ebenezer Scrooge’ says something we should all take as our Christian motto, our life creed as well….
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”
Notice Scrooge talks in the present and the future. He is committing to living the meaning of Christmas - a time when kindness, generosity and helping others are at the forefront. These are not just Advent, Christmas Day or even Epiphany only sensibilities; they are our duty as Christians.
Christmas is much too big for a day, a week, a month, even a season to hold, let along to relegate Jesus and His miraculous birth story.
In The Twelve Days of Silent Nights, author Peter Celano offers this timely insight “each season, each day is meant to carry us through our faith – guiding us in recalling and understanding the life of Christ.”
Maybe we should take time each day to recall and study the life of Christ…starting with Bethlehem, placing ourselves into the Nativity Story, what it must have been like to experience the moment when God entered the world as an infant. Imagine the angelic choir celebrating Christ’s entry, Immanuel.
Even in the aftermath of ‘the holidays,’ we can capture or recapture the awe that should fill us at the very notion God loved us enough to share in the human experience, for us, you and me.
“Peace on earth, goodwill towards mankind,” is possible beyond Advent and Epiphany when we let our love and awe of Jesus and His story drive us yearlong towards the love of God and neighbor.
If Jesus lives in our hearts all year, then Christmas will reside in our hearts as well all year. And our compassion, inspired by Noel, should be yearlong, too, right?
God creates seasons to prepare our hearts, minds and spirits for the tasks at hand, and the ones he has planned for us. So as we go beyond Twelvetide towards Lent, let’s recommit to relationship with Immanuel, keeping Christ in our hearts, so the wonder, awe of Christmas remind us through love, redemption, compassion, kindness we honor God’s gift.
Be blessed, these 12 Days of Christmas, and beyond.