Sometime during this season you will no doubt hear or maybe even sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” This spirited cumulative song, with each verse built upon the previous one, lists the increasingly lavish gifts given by the recipient’s true love.
There are many legends regarding the origin of this song but Pastor Ben Williams, at St. Mark’s UMC in Raleigh, told of one that, even if not totally true, is worth repeating because of its spiritual significance.
England’s King Henry VIII banned the Catholic Church in the 1530s, because it refused to annul his marriage. The Anglican Church became the “official” state religion and some myths say Catholics were shunned, imprisoned or put to death. While not totally proven, it enhances the story. At a time when they were not openly permitted to worship in England two Jesuit Priests penned the seemingly innocuous lyrics Catholics knew to be code words for the tenets of their faith. The explanation can be just as relevant for Christians today.
On the first day of Christmas the present given by the true love was a partridge in a pear tree. Catholics understood this represented Jesus on the Cross. The two Turtledoves given on the second day stand for the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The three French Hens represent either the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh given by the Magi or the virtues of faith, hope and charity. Four Calling or “Colly” (black) Birds are the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. We love the emphasis given in the song to five golden rings, understood to underscore the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the Old Testament.
Six Geese a laying are the precepts of the church: church attendance, confession of sin, Holy communion, fasting and repentance, tithing and generosity, and upholding the marriage covenant. Some versions say they could also represent the Genesis Creation Story in which God created the world in six days. The Seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church are the seven Swans a swimming. The eight maids a milking represent the Beatitudes preached by Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount. The nine ladies dancing indicate either the fruits of the spirit or choirs of angels. Easily recognized are the ten Lords a leaping, symbols for the Ten Commandments. Eleven Pipers piping can only stand for the eleven faithful Disciples and the twelve Drummers drumming are the twelve beliefs spelled out in The Apostles Creed.
Whether the lore surrounding this traditional Christmas song is true or not the mnemonics can help in remembering and valuing them. PNC reports that today the twelve gifts would cost $34,131.
Most of us don’t face the threats of persecution represented in the legend but we know they exist today in the forms of discrimination, prejudice, war and injustice.
In a world where one in four North Carolina children face food anxiety and one in thirty is without a home there are indeed battles to fight to make this a world where suffering and depravation are eliminated.
So the next time you hear “The Twelve Days of Christmas” be mindful of what these gifts represent and cost, remembering this is truly the season for giving, not just to loved ones or friends, but to those in need. These are the priceless gifts of Christmas.