A conversation with friends triggered this seasonal blog post. It transpired that there some people who are confused about just what constitutes the 12 days of Christmas. Though my knowledge ran that far I thought a bit of digging around the period and the eponymous song might be interesting. I learnt a lot.
The 12 days of Christmas
So! Hands up. Who thought that the 12 days of Christmas referred only to a Christmas song? You know – the one about an over-generous lover showering his paramour with a cummulation of grandiose gifts? Me too.
Turns out though there’s an underpinning religious significance – both to the gifts given in the song and to the 12 days of Christmas itself. Which, when you think about it, shouldn’t be surprising at all. Well certainly not in the latter case at any rate.
But before we get to all that let’s first establish what these eponymous days of the festive season are. The Twelve Days of Christmas start with Christmas Day and end with Epiphany on January 6th. They are NOT, as I’ve been hearing recently, the 12 days running up to Christmas Day. Noooooo!
The real dozen days of the festive season
It’s perhaps not surprising that confusion has arisen about what these days comprise. As this article on Christianity Today points out, the Christmas season starts earlier and earlier each year. What with mince pies appearing on the supermarket shelves just after the Crème Eggs. They’ll catch each other up one of these years.
So, by the time December 25th arrives we’re all Xmased out. Christmas is over, the new year kicks off and we all go back to our daily routines.
But the traditional Christian Christmas celebration is quite the opposite. You know the one – it’s the one that, with a bit of Saturnalia mixed in, that’s ostensibly the reason for all the December festive frivolity.
The Advent season starts on the 4th Sunday before Christmas. For almost a month, Christians wait for the coming of Christ in a period of longing. THEN, on December 25th, Christmas Day heralds 12 days of celebrations culminating on 6th January with the feast of Epiphany – known also as Twelfth Night.
The ‘real’ 12 days of Christmas matter then. Well at least to the non-secular. Not simply as a way of rejecting the secular notions of the ‘Christmas season’ but also as a commemoration of the moment that God entered the world in the form of a baby. Something I reckon it does us no harm to remember – even if secular.
Integral to the celebration of the birth of Christ, and the 12 days of Christmas, is a whole lot of feasting.
As Christianity Today explains, 3 different feasts, dating back to the late 5th century, follow Christmas and reflect the different ways the incarnation mystery took place.
1. The Feast of Stephen – on December 26th. By tradition a day for giving leftovers to the poor – as in the Carol, Good King Wenceslas. Stephen was an early deacon and a forerunner of all who show their love of Christ by kindness to the needy. Stephen was also a martyr – the first of the New Covenant.
2. Next up, on December 27th, is the feast of St. John the Evangelist.
3. On December 28th comes the feast of the Holy Innocents – the children murdered by Herod.
4. Finally, comes Epiphany, (January 6th) and the Christmas celebration comes to an end.
As lovers of Shakespeare will know, Twelfth Night is the ultimate celebration of Christmas madness. This, as we know, is when the decorations should finally come down. If they don’t then tradition dictates that they should stay in place until Candlemas. I’ve often pitched up in Brussels in early January to find everything still festive. Candlemas is the reason.
All of this is hugely simplified but you can read more of it here: http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2008/august/real-twelve-days-of-christmas.html
I’m just relieved not to have to do all that feasting. Otherwise the spare tyre would be swiftly pluralised! Not to mention all the washing up. *Shudders*
Now back to the song
Wikipedia describes it as: ‘an English Christmas carol that enumerates in the manner of a cumulative song a series of increasingly grand gifts given on each of the twelve days of Christmas (the twelve days after Christmas). The song, published in England in 1780 without music as a chant or rhyme, is thought to be French in origin.’
According to 12days.com the specific origins of the song aren’t known. It possibly began as a Twelfth Night “memory-and-forfeits” game in which the leader recited a verse, each of the players repeated the verse, the leader added another verse, and so on until one of the players made a mistake, with the player who erred having to pay a penalty, such as offering up a kiss or a sweet.’
This article goes on to suggest that there’s a likelihood of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ being either confused or transformed from a song called ‘A New Dial’ (known also as ‘In Those Twelve Days’). Dating back to at least 1625 that song assigns religious meanings to each of the twelve days of Christmas.
There are various versions of these attributions. This is just one:
1. True Love refers to God
2. Turtle Doves refers to the Old and New Testaments
3. French Hens refers to Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4. Calling (more traditionally ‘Colly’) Birds refers to the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5. Golden Rings refers to the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the “Pentateuch”, which gives the history of man’s fall from grace.
6. Geese A-laying refers to the six days of creation.
7. Swans A-swimming refers to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments.
8. Maids A-milking refers to the eight beatitudes.
9. Ladies Dancing refers to the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit.
10. Lords A-leaping refers to the ten commandments
11. Pipers Piping refers to the eleven faithful apostles
12. Drummers Drumming refers to the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed.
So there we have it. An exposé of the meaning behind a jolly Christmas carol.