Friday, March 24, 2006

Seasonal #1.

The Twelve Days of Christmas


Robert Leslie Fielding

It sometimes seems that Christmas lasts for only about two days – Christmas Day and Boxing Day, not twelve, doesn’t it. It’s over before it’s really got the chance to get going, and Christmas Eve isn’t even one of the twelve, though it does seem important, leaving New Year’s Eve/New Years Day aside for the moment, with apologies to the Scottish who always make more of Hogmanay.

But no, Christmas consists of twelve days; starting on Dec 25 and lasting until June 5 – twelfth night before Epiphany starts on Jan 6, which has special significance too, being the time when the Magi came bearing gifts to the infant Jesus, still wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger. In Latin American culture, Jan 6 is Three Kings Day. Should we have the thirteen days of Christmas – perish the thought.

The song though most definitely has only twelve days in it, and twelve gifts from ‘my true love’ to ‘me’. Most of us can reach the ‘five gold rings’, and remember the ‘four calling birds’, the ‘three French hens’, ‘two turtle doves’ and last but not least the ‘partridge in a pear tree’. It’s when we try to go beyond five that we come unstuck, with the ‘lords a leaping’ and the ‘ladies dancing’ conflating into eight of the latter and nine of the former, or is it the other way round. The point is made. We have to hear someone sing it to be able to remember all of it.

It wasn’t always that way though; the song, or so some believe, was really an ancient (16th Century) mnemonic device to help children learn the catechism in times when owning up to being a Christian wasn’t always sensible. And like finding out that an old friend has a wardrobe full of skeletons you didn’t know existed, so the Twelve Days of Christmas has these hidden significances and meanings.

To skip through them; ‘my true love’ is held to be God, ‘a partridge in a pear tree’ Jesus Christ, and even ‘me’ – so integral to the song, is the Christian flock or mankind if you prefer, and we’ve hardly begun.

The ‘turtle doves’, of which there were two, signify the Old and New Testaments, the ‘three French hens’ the three theological virtues: faith, hope and love. It gets easier – the ‘four calling birds’ are the gospels, but again more obtuse as the ‘five gold rings’ represent the five books of the Old Testament - the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – the children of those times needed all the help they could get.

‘Six geese a-laying’ are the six days of creation, ‘seven swans a-swimming’ the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion, according to Romans 12:6-8.

The eight beatitudes: 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, and last but certainly not least, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake are labeled the ‘eight maids a-milking’ in the song.

The ‘nine ladies dancing’, it is nine and not eight, you see, represent the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:2)

Easy again; ‘ten lords a leaping’ must be the ten commandments, ‘eleven pipers piping’ the eleven faithful apostles, excluding Judas Iscariot, and lastly, the ‘twelve drummers drumming’ take care of the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed.

Rarely has indoctrination sounded so melodic, but if the children of the day learned nothing else over the twelve days of Christmas, they would have been well served by the song and its lighter, pictorial side that we usually hear several times at this time of year.
Robert Leslie Fielding


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