Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Twelve Days of Christmas, Explained

While we celebrate Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukah, Eid, Solstice and other winter holidays, I think it would be good to remember that religious tolerance-the freedom to worship publicly as one chose without persecution-is a fairly revolutionary concept and one of the cornerstones of our Constitution. Our nation, by and large, was founded by and for people who sought exactly this type of freedom.

While on the surface, "Twelve Days of Christmas" appears to be a child's counting rhyme, its meaning is far more serious. Starting with Henry VIII's separation of the Church of England from the Catholic Church in Rome, Catholics faced increasing scrutiny and persecution in England. Many were arrested, tried, and some even executed under laws that forbade Catholics from writing, teaching or practicing their faith. "Priest Holes" can still be found in older estates where ancestor hid clerics and the faithful from arrest. Children and adults could be taken and it was a dark time for many. The hardest problem was teaching children their religious lessons without endangering the adults or children involved. Codes were employed set in rhymes and set to a popular tunes of the day-so popular that the seemingly nonsensical lyrics were heard in pubs, the palace and in public without any knowledge of the real meanings!

Here are some of the "codes" as explained-
-Twelve is the number of days between Christmas and Epiphany.
At that time every Christian child was taught that pure love only came from God-so this "true love" was the ultimate Gift.
-A mother partridge lures enemies away from her next at her own peril-sacrificing her own life as did Christ for us.
-Two turtle doves stood for the Old and New Testaments.
-Three French hens were something that would be found in a rich or royal household-a meal fit for a king and represented the Three Gifts of the Magi-gold, frankincense and myrrh.
-Four calling birds represented the Four authors of the Gospels that "call out" the story of Christ. So Matthew, Mark, Luke and John became the "calling birds" of the song.
-Five gold rings tell of the first five books of the Bible-known as the Pentateuch or Torah-also known as the Law of Moses.
-Six geese a-laying might sound funny, but eggs were the symbols of new life and creation, six being the number of "days" in creation and so the laying of the geese was representative of God moving his hand in creation from the void.
-Seven swans a swimming speak directly of the seven spiritual gifts or gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in St. Paul's writings. Prophesy, service, teaching, encouraging, giving, leadership and mercy were qualities that Catholic children were taught would move easily through their lives if they walked with God.
-Eight maids a milking represented the common man and the number was significant in that it stood for the Beatitudes.
-Nine ladies dancing were the graceful embodiments of the gifts of the Spirit-love, joy,peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
-Ten lords a leaping were the Ten Commandments. Lords were supposed to be just and honorable-servants of the law.
-Eleven pipers piping were representative of the eleven faithful apostles-remember, Judas betrayed Christ.
-Twelve drummers drumming was a reminder of the "Apostles' Creed" which contained a dozen different elements that were meant to be part of a Catholic's daily walk with God.

PS. I guess I should explain a few of the linked illustrations. Some are serious, some are funny. The Nine Ladies is a rock formation that evidently has a large number of supporters, but I had never heard of it before I googled it for the photo. And the one for Four Calling Birds, was just funny, admit it.

Have a Merry Christmas and leave a prayer on your pillow for those who are hurting, lonely or in pain. And if you use the "free giftwrap" at bookstores, donate something. I went to Borders at two and the ladies for the Lewisville Animal Rescue had been there for awhile wrapping and hardly anyone donated. C'mon, it's Christmas. Or as my mom always says "it's jewels on your crown in heaven...."

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Darren said...

I didn't know about the "code" behind the 12 Days of Christmas. Where did you learn this from?

Ellen K said...

I was actually reading a book that I bought for my mom. I took a children's literature class in college and I knew that almost all of the Grimm's Fairy Tales and Mother Goose rhymes were actually subliminal political protests and morality plays, but I didn't even know this. It's a book on the history of various Christmas carols. It blasts some of the myths-Martin Luther didn't write some of the songs attributed to him and even songs that were thought to be derived from Gregorian chants in monesteries, really weren't. I don't have the author's name here, but I can find it if you are interested. Very Da Vinci Code stuff.