The Twelve Days of Christmas–Sunday, December 29, 2013

December 29, 2013


Robin McGonigle

University Congregational Church

Dec. 29, 2014

“The 12 Days of Christmas”

John 1:1-9

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of all humanity.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was one sent from God whose name was John.  He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe.  He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.”

John 1:1-9 New International Version (NIV)


Happy 5th Day of Christmas!  You just thought that Christmas was over for another 360-ish days.  Nope.  Christmas actually has 12 days starting with Christmas Day and ending on the 5th of January.  The 6th of January is always Epiphany Day.


In honor of the season of Christmas, I am going to share some information about the song, the Twelve Days of Christmas.  To most of us it is a delightful and nonsense rhyme set to music.  But, as the story goes, it had a serious purpose – and a religious purpose.  It turns out that this song is more than a repetitious melody with pretty phrases and a list of strange gifts.  The song is about the twelve days of the religious season of Christmas – stretching from Christmas Day to January 5th.  And the song was also used as tool to teach young Catholics about the faith.


To be honest, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction concerning this song and its history.  Snopes denies that the song was used as a catechism aid; but the Catholic Information Network identifies the song as an aid to help people keep their faith alive.  Undisputed is the fact that the song has more of a purpose than many modern people know.


From 1558 to 1829, Roman Catholics in England were prohibited from any practice of their faith.  It was against the law to publicly or privately observe Catholic rituals or holidays.  In fact, it was a crime to be Catholic.  Of one was caught with anything in writing that declared that they were practicing Catholicism, they risked being imprisoned, hanged, beheaded or drawn and quartered.  It is astounding what so-called followers of Jesus do to one another.


As the story goes, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was written in England, not as a funny Christmas song, but as a catechism song to help young Catholics learn the points of faith.  It was a memory aid.  The songs’ twelve gifts are hidden meanings to teach the faith.


First there is the “true love”.  Our true love is God.  The partridge in a pear tree is God’s first gift on Christmas Day – Jesus.


On the 2nd day of Christmas, God gives two turtle doves.  The doves represent the Old and New Testaments.  Remember the frequency in which doves are used in the Bible to the reading that a particular writing or person is from God?  There is strong evidence in the Hebrew Bible, as well as the archaeological record, that many ancient Israelites believed the goddess Asherah (symbolized by a dove) was the consort of their god Yahweh.  In the Hebrew Bible, the “feminine” symbol of the dove is used to represent the spirit of God.  The Babylonian Talmud likens the hovering of God’s spirit in Genesis 1:2 to the hovering of a dove.  Doves appear in the New Testament at scenes associated with Jesus’ birth, baptism and just before his death.


On the 3rd day of Christmas, God gives three French hens, symbolic of the three virtues mentioned in I Corinthians: faith, hope, and love.  Hens are female, life-giving agents.  As the feminine was ascribed to the Holy Spirit, so too are the gifts from the Spirit.  The highest gifts of virtue are the three French hens: faith, hope and love.


On the 4th day of Christmas, God gives four calling birds, symbolic of the 4 gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  Obviously, the gospels call out to us like the four calling birds, calling us to faith.  One usually interprets “calling bird” to mean “song bird.”  This could refer to any of the passerines, though most likely a canary or similar caged exotic.  However, in this case, it is widely accepted that the original gift was one of four “colly birds,” not four “calling birds.” The word “colly” means “black as coal.” Thus, the gift on the fourth day could be none other than the Common Blackbird.  At any rate, the four birds are symbols for the gospels.

On the 5th day of Christmas, God gives five golden rings.  These remind us of the first five books of the Old Testament, called the Pentateuch.  In these books, we are told the stories of creation, the first people, the first laws, and the first rules for daily living.  These are the five golden rings – the first five books and their stories.  Just as gold is a precious metal, these first books are to be a treasured and precious part of our faith.


The six geese a-laying represent the six days of creation.  Geese-a-laying is like God giving birth to and nurturing the creation.


Seven swans a-swimming symbolize the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church which are: baptism, communion, ordination, marriage, last rites, confirmation and holy orders.  Protestants only have 2 swans-a-swimming: communion and baptism.


Eight maids-a-milking are the eight beatitudes given by Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount.  These are the eight “blessed are” statements.

  • Blessed are the poor in spirit
  • Blessed are the meek
  • Blessed are they who mourn
  • Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice
  • Blessed are the merciful
  • Blessed are the clean of heart
  • Blessed are the peacemakers
  • Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’ sake


The nine ladies dancing are the nine fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.


Ten lords-a-leaping are the Ten Commandments.  You will notice that the geese are a-laying, swans are a-swimming, maids are a-milking, and lords are a-leaping.  All of these gifts are active.  We are responsible for the doing of these gifts –

  • Caring for creation (geese-a-laying),
  • Maintaining the sacraments (swans-a-swimming)
  • Caring for those who are blessed (maids-a-milking)
  • Living out the gifts of the Spirit (ladies dancing)
  • Upholding the ten commandments (lords-a-leaping)


The eleven pipers piping represent the eleven faithful disciples.  Judas is not counted for faithfulness, so that leaves eleven.  These disciples were responsible to tell Jesus’ story – and so they can easily be compared to pipers piping!


And finally, the twelve drummers drumming are the twelve doctrinal points in the Apostle’s Creed.  If you’ve ever been a member of a church where memorization and the reciting of doctrinal statement were valued, you know what it sounds like to have 12 drummers drumming inside your head!


Enjoy this song and the variations of myth and legend about it!  And just in case you missed one – here is the list again:


True Love = God

Partridge in a pear tree = Jesus

2 Turtle doves = Old and New Testament

3 French Hens = 3 virtues of faith, hope, and love

4 Calling Birds = 4 gospels and their authors

5 Golden Rings = Pentateuch (first 5 books of the bible)

6 Geese-a-Laying = Days of Creation

7 Swans-a-Swimming = Seven Sacraments

8 Maids-a-Milking = Eight Beatitudes

9 Ladies Dancing = Fruit of the Spirit

10 Lords-a-Leaping = 10 Commandments

11 Pipers Piping = 11 faithful Disciples

12 Drummers Drumming = 12 Doctrines in the Apostle’s Creed


One last word:  I like the song because it can serve as a metaphor for our lives.  Sometimes it seems that life is nonsensical.  We cannot see, at times, the purpose or point of being in this place at this time.  We go through the motions and wonder occasionally whether it is all worth the trouble.  It’s like singing the song in all of its quirkiness without any understanding of what it all means.


Our faith teaches us to make sense of life – it gives us words and truths beyond the everydayness and routines.  Our faith brings new meaning to what seems absurd.  We talk around tables and we meet over coffee, we worship together and we pray together.  When that happens, we find reason and hope for another day.  The absurd becomes reasonable.  Our lives are put in context.  The Divine comes through and for a moment, it all makes sense.  Thanks be to God!





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