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Twelve Days of Christmas

December 17, 2012
The Daily News


A friend recently sent me an e-mail with the following explanation of the meaning behind the words of a favorite Christmas carol - The Twelve Days of Christmas.

The twelve days in the song are the twelve days starting Christmas Day, or in some traditions, the day after Christmas (December 26 - Boxing Day or St. Stephen's Day, as being the feast day of St. Stephen Protomartyr) to the day before Epiphany, or the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6, or the Twelfth Day).

Twelfth Night is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "the evening of the fifth of January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of the Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking."

The e-mail information read:

From 1558 until 1829, Roman Catholics in England were not permitted to practice their faith openly. Someone during that era wrote this carol as a catechism song for young Catholics. It has two levels of meaning - the surface meaning plus a hidden meaning known only to members of their church. Each element in the carol has a code word for a religious reality which the children could remember.

The partridge in a pear tree was Jesus Christ.

Two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments.

Three French hens stood for faith, hope and love.

The four calling birds were the four gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The five golden rings recalled the Torah or Law - the first five books of the Old Testament.

The six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation.

Seven swans a-swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit - Prophesy, Serving, Teaching, Exhortation, Contribution, Leadership and Mercy.

The eight maids a-milking were the eight beatitudes.

Nine ladies dancing were the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit - Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self-Control.

The ten lords a-leaping were the Ten Commandments.

The eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful disciples.

The twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in the Apostles' Creed.

However, a Wikipedia article states that "a bit of modern folklore claims that the song's lyrics were written as a 'catechism song' to help young Catholics learn their faith at a time when practicing Catholicism was criminalized in England (1558 until 1829)."

The article continues by stating "there is no primary evidence supporting this claim, and no evidence that the claim is historical, or anything but a fanciful modern day speculation."

"The theory is of relatively recent origin. It was first suggested by Canadian English teacher and hymnologist Hugh D. McKellar in a short article, 'How to Decode the Twelve Days of Christmas,' published in 1979. In a later article published in the music journal The Hymn, McKellar reiterates that the associations are his. The idea was further popularized by a Catholic priest, Fr. Hal Stockert, in an article he wrote in 1982 and posted online in 1995."

The Wikipedia article also points out that "none of the enumerated items would distinguish Catholics from Protestants, and so would hardly need to be secretly encoded." The latter is certainly is a valid observation.

Personally, whether "a bit of modern folklore" or not, I like McKellar's effort at "decoding" the puzzling lyrics which the Wikipedia article also states "may have no meaning at all," and goes on to note that "its meaning, if it has any, has yet to be satisfactorily explained."

Christmas is the celebration of Christ's birth, and for those of us who follow his teachings, McKellar's modern explanation will hopefully help us keep Christ as our focus in our Christmas celebrations.

For me, the proper holiday greeting is and will always be "Merry Christmas," and not the politically correct "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings."

We live in a nation where religious freedom permits us to practice the faith of our choice openly - regardless of our religious orientation, or lack thereof. Hopefully, this freedom and the innate good that resides deep within us all allow us to profess our desire for "peace on earth" and "good will toward men" not just during the Christmas season, but throughout the year.

Imagine living in such a blessed environment instead of the strife so rampant throughout the world.

Merry Christmas.

Bill Cummings

Iron Mountain



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