Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Twelve Days of Redemption

I've been reading about the history of the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas." It's been interesting in light of the fact that there is a bit of a controversy concerning what the song is really talking about.

One prevailing opinion is that the song is a codified catechism that Catholics taught their children during a time of persecution. According to this theory, each item in the list represented a bit of scriptural knowledge, like this:

1 Partridge in a pear tree = The One true God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ
2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch" which contain the law condemning us of our sins.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments of the Catholic faith
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed


Another prevailing notion is that the song was just a silly children's song used sort of like the memory games our children play. You know, like, "I'm going on a trip and I'm taking..." Each person recites the whole list up to that point, and then adds a new thing.

Some views say that the five gold rings represented the gold bands around the necks of pheasants, and the four calling birds were actually four "colly" birds, which were blackbirds. That makes perfect sense to me, seeing as blackbird pie was a "dainty dish" in those days. (Well, that's what the nursery rhyme says, so it MUST be true.)

My own personal, novel, idea is that it was a fun holiday song describing the Twelve Days of Christmas during medieval times. Have you ever read in your history book what feasts were like in those days? I can well believe that the holiday celebration included all those fowls, including the pheasants and blackbirds; probably roasted over the Yule log, or something. The "maids a'milking" would then symbolize all the butter and cream and cheese being consumed. And all those musicians and dancers were hired for the occasion.

There you go. A merry fortnight of feasting and partying in the local castle.

Just picture it:

On the first day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
A partridge in a pear tree. (Were there PEARS on that tree?)

On the second day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the third day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the fourth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Four calling birds, (blackbirds, remember?)
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the fifth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Five golden rings, (actually five pheasants)
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the sixth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Six geese a-laying, (Hmm. Maybe this includes EGGS?)
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the seventh day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the eighth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Eight maids a-milking, (Milk! Cream! Cheese! Butter!)
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the ninth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Nine ladies dancing,
Eight maids a-milking,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the tenth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Ten lords a-leaping,
Nine ladies dancing,
Eight maids a-milking,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the eleventh day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Eleven pipers piping,
Ten lords a-leaping,
Nine ladies dancing,
Eight maids a-milking,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the twelfth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Twelve drummers drumming,
Eleven pipers piping,
Ten lords a-leaping,
Nine ladies dancing,
Eight maids a-milking,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree!


But what about the hidden Christian meaning? Was that the true origin of the song, or was it an add-in later to give deeper meaning to the song? Well, I don't really know.

However, I know this: Any time we can redeem the secular or pagan origins of our traditions or holidays, it's a good thing.

There are those who disagree with this. They say we should avoid like the plague anything that has the slightest connection with pagan practices. But Christmas is all about redemption-- God sending Jesus to redeem fallen mankind. Why, then, shouldn't Christians redeem the pagan imagery of the holiday?

Christmas trees no longer stand for some pagan something-or-other. They help point us to the Creator.

Santa doesn't have to be just a jolly old fairy tale. He can represent all that is good and kind and giving during the holidays. He can even in a small way represent God.

Giving gifts can either be a materialistic sign of our collective greed, or it can remind us of the giving inherent in the whole story of Christmas: The magi bringing gifts to the Christ child; God himself giving his son to us, to redeem us and all that pertains to us.

So, in light of that, I wish you a Happy Redemption Season-- all twelve days of it.

3 comments:

Marti said...

St. Nicholas was a fourth-century Turkish priest who left gifts in the middle of the night to prevent families from having to sell their daughters into prostitution. The present Santa Claus took shape to a great extent in Clement Moore's "Twas the Night Before Christmas". I wish the former was as well-known as the latter.

Sniz said...

I totally agree with you on this. My father, the pastor, did a sermon about this very subject two weeks ago. He said the early Christians purposefully chose a day that people celebrated a pagan holiday on because they wanted to show the REAL reason for celebrating.

Bellezza said...

I have never seen the Christian take on The Twelve Days of Christmas, and I've been a Christian for 46 years! Thanks so much for sharing it, it makes perfect sense to me, and I'm printing a copy to put in my Bible.
It was nice to have you visit my TT13 today. I like your blog. And chocolate. :)