Brandon's Notepad

January 5, 2015

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Filed under: Christianity — Brandon @ 12:00 pm
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ShortURL: http://goo.gl/dcFW8I


Today, January 5th, is the twelfth day of the Christmas season according to the Church’s liturgical calendar. To celebrate, I decided to write a little post on various aspects of this observance.


‘Tis The Season…

In the Catholic Church, the Twelve Days of Christmas is a time of celebration to commemorate the Nativity of Jesus. The dates always fall on December 25th through January 5th, and is immediately followed by the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. In the Latin (Roman) Rite, the first day (December 25th) is a Holy Day of Obligation; whereas, it is required for the faithful in the Eastern Churches to observe January 6th as the primary Christmas celebration, whereupon it is the Baptism of Jesus that receives the focus, and not the visitation of the Magi. Anglicans and Lutherans also celebrate (or at least recognize) this season, the major difference being that for them the Twelve Day period defines the entirety if Christmastide, which (currently) extends through the Sunday after Epiphany for Catholics.

…To Be Jolly

Western secular culture has tried to change the meaning of the Twelve Days over time. Americans especially love a crescendo, so the Twelve Days are often represented as a sort of countdown to Christmas. If there are going to be twelve days in Christmas, then certainly the last will be the biggest and loudest celebration, and that, as everyone knows, falls on the 25th of December by tradition. This is the same cultural movement that favors “countdown calendars” to Advent calendars (though in a way, that’s really what the Advent calendar is). In this context, however, the end of the countdown marks the day when, through the receipt of material goods, one can reasonably expect to feel the most jolly (as opposed to being joyous over the gift of hope for eternal salvation given by an almighty and merciful God). And where might the idea of linking the Twelve Days with progressive gift-giving have originated?

The Song

Oh right, the song. You know, the one about the singer’s true love granting an increasingly elaborate and expensive array of gifts to win her (gender assumed) favor. To be honest, I have never liked that song, if for no other reason than that I find the repetition and even the tune itself extremely annoying. Not to mention that it has nothing to do with Jesus and the real meaning of Christmas. I’m not trying to be a humbug here — quite the opposite in fact!

My interest in the song did pique when I received an e-mail that was making the rounds a few years ago about “The Real Meaning to 12 Days of Christmas”. It explained how the song was written as a tool to catechize young Catholic children in England where Catholicism had been outlawed. The singer’s “true love” is God, of course, and the singer is the Church / the believer / the Christian. Each gift is suppose to represent a gift from God:

  1. Partridge in a pear tree :: Jesus Christ who died on a tree
  2. Turtle doves :: the Old and New Testaments
  3. French hens :: faith, hope, and love
  4. Calling birds :: the four Gospels
  5. Golden rings :: the Pentateuch
  6. Geese a-laying :: the six days of creation
  7. Swans a swimming :: the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit
  8. Maids a milking :: the Beatitudes
  9. Ladies dancing :: nine fruits of the Holy Spirit
  10. Lords a-leaping :: the Ten Commandments
  11. Pipers piping :: the eleven faithful disciples (sans Judas)
  12. Drummers drumming :: the twelve points of the Apostles’ Creed

At first blush this sounds great, but as it turns out, this whole idea is a fabrication of modern times. This should be obvious in light of two bits of information. First, the order (and even the number) of gifts varied each time the song was published and the lyrics we use today are from the 1909 version; thus, the use of the gifts as a mnemonic device for memorizing the theological points listed above is anachronistic. Second, none of the items listed above would separate Catholics from Protestants, so what would be the value in secretly encoding them into song? Perhaps, I will dig a little deeper into why this rumor was started, and if I do, I will update this post.


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