Saturday, 20 December 2014

The true meaning of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas.

Written in sixteen century England the song had a dual purpose. Its Jesuit authors aimed to encourage the Catholic community to keep going amid bad times and also to pass on to their children the faith that meant so much to them. The Jesuits’ song, which quickly became popular, taught in code the spiritual value of Christmas and the rich worth of our Catholic faith.

The twelve days are those from Christmas Day to Epiphany. ‘My true love gave to me’ is code for the Lord God speaking to whoever sings the song.

The ‘partridge in a pear tree’ represents Jesus, reigning from the Cross which is to be understood as a tree waiting to bear its fruit. The two turtle doves are code for the Old and New Testaments while the three French hens represent the gifts brought by the Magi. Those ‘four calling birds’ are the gospels which call out the Good News of Jesus Christ, the five golden rings are the first five books of the Bible and the ‘six geese a-laying’ either represent the six precepts of the Church or the six days of creation - no one now is certain. The ‘seven swans a-swimming’ are of course code for the seven sacraments of the Church, the ‘eight maids a-milking’ are the beatitudes and the ‘nine ladies dancing’ are the nine choirs of angels. As for the ‘ten lords a-leaping’ they are code for the Ten Commandments while the ‘eleven pipers piping’ represent the number of the apostles – Judas having left – who pipe the faith in an unbroken tradition. And the twelve drummers drumming are code for the twelve beliefs professed in the Apostles Creed.

In twenty-first century England, we Catholics must sometimes practice our faith amid bad times. We still have a desire to pass it on though don’t we which is why we might wish to seize this festive opportunity to hand down the true meaning of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’? May it speak to us afresh of the true cost of Christmas, a cost God bore out of sheer love for us all. 

By Canon Dominic Golding Link