Friday, January 06, 2006

Twelfth Day

Today is the traditional date for the Feast of the Epiphany, the celebration of the Incarnate God revealing himself not only to Jews, but to all nations, as represented in the Magi.1 While the secular world dropped Christmas like a rock on the 26th (for Valentine's Day), some of us still remember that there are twelve days of Christmas, with the final one being Epiphany. In some cultures this is actually the the day for giving gifts!2

Speaking of gifts, what about that crazy "Twelve Days of Christmas" song? John Zmirak and Denise Matychowiak write in The Bad Catholic's Guide to Good Living:

In the mid-90s we began to hear about a hidden meaning that underlay the charmingly nonsensical song “The 12 Days of Christmas.” According to Fr. Hal Stockert of the Catholic Information Network, the song was a coded catechism, used by persecuted English Catholics to pass on the faith to their children.

For those who haven't seen the claim, here's Fr. Stockert's CIN article:

The songs gifts are hidden meanings to the teachings of the faith. The "true love" mentioned in the song doesn't refer to an earthly suitor, it refers to God Himself. The "me" who receives the presents refers to every baptized person. The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge which feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings, much in memory of the expression of Christ's sadness over the fate of Jerusalem: "Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered thee under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but thou wouldst not have it so..."

The other symbols mean the following:

2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
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 gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy 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

John and Denise continue:

The author didn’t provide his source for this information, and a number of critics have raised objections—for instance, the fact that Anglicans, too, believe in each of the things enumerated above (except for seven sacraments; they’ve slimmed down to three). A more obvious point: Would using such a song really help kids remember all those complex, sometimes abstruse theological points?

With a couple of exceptions the gifts offer little apparent connection to the things they're supposed to represent, and thus little mnemonic advantage over simply counting to twelve. Perhaps it's simply that we of the modern world don't grasp the rich symbolic of bygone ages? If so, advocates of the "catechism theory" owe some explanation.

Additionally, what's the use of simply remembering these numbers? In what way is it important to the Catholic Christian Faith to know, for example, that the Apostle's Creed has twelve points? Why not just learn the points themselves?

I've just stumbled across an article3 that includes this interesting piece of information:

However, according to A Celebration and History(ISBN 0-679-74038-4), by Leigh Grant, the written lyrics to "The Twelve Days of Christmas" first appeared in Mirth without Mischief in the early 1780s in England. Grant states that the tune to which these words are sung apparently dates back much further and came from France.

Maybe the claim gets so much play because Christians really do feel their faith under assault. The deeper story is not that Catholics were persecuted in the past, but that they are denigraded even today, largely because of widespread historical ignorance. (Ironically the claim about the song seems to represent a similar ignorance.) The celebration of Christmas didn't pop out of the sky, and it's certainly not specified in literal text of the Bible. While it's great that so many Christians want to put Christ back into Christmas, how about we put the Mass back too!


1. When we still had men in the American episcopacy, the Feast was actually celebrated today, instead of being transfered to Sunday.

2. One of the advantages to being in the know about the calendrical reality of Christmas is that one can in good conscience buy Christmas gifts at the "after Christmas" sales. Holy timewarp!

3. The Snopes article also contains some interesting background on Fr. Stockert's claims. The Snopes site is known for its liberal anti-religious bias, the information (updated Dec. 20) is still interesting.

John Zmirak and Denise Matychowiak, The Bad Catholic's Guide to Good Living (Crossroad Publishing Company, 2005).

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