Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Twelve Days of Christmas

The following description of the symbolic meaning of the popular Christmas carol, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is the best explanation I have seen.* It seems particularly appropriate this season when persecution of Christians has reached unprecedented proportions all over the World. Every day in many parts of the world there are killings, tortures, beatings, thefts, and imprisonments meted out to Christians. So far Christians in America have been spared such atrocities. At this time of year we usually just  have to deal with creche vandalism and attempts by politically correct fanatics to ban Christmas from the holiday season.

"Catholics in England were forbidden to practice their faith openly during the years from 1538 to 1829. This song was developed to communicate their gift of faith in coded lyrics. The 12 days run from December 25 (Christmas) to January 6 (Epiphany). The "True Love" refers to God.

A Partridge is the symbol of Christ. The partridge will feign injury to protect nestlings who are defenseless. A pear tree is the symbol of the salvation of humanity, just as the apple tree signifies human downfall.

Two Turtle doves symbolize the Old Testament sacrifice offered by even the poorest of people in Israel (with which Christ was "redeemed" by His parents at His presentation in the Temple).

Three French hens symbolize the gifts of the three Wise Men, as also the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity.

Four calling birds represent the four major prophets and the four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Five golden rings represent the five Wounds of Christ (the reason for the change of melody at this point). The number five refers also to the five obligatory sacraments (Baptism, Penance, Holy Eucharist, Confirmation, and the Anointing of the Sick), as well as to the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch.

Six geese a-laying represent the six days of creation.

Seven swans a-swimming are the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit and also the seven works of Mercy.

Eight maids a-milking refer to the eight Beatitudes preached by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount.

Nine ladies dancing are the nine ranks of angel choirs, the Spirits who surround the Throne of God in the Book of Revelation.

Ten lords a-leaping represent the Ten Commandments.

Eleven pipers playing are the eleven surviving Apostles.

Twelve drummers drumming are the twelve minor prophets of the Old Testament; the twelve points of the Apostle's Creed, the twelve Apostles; the Twelve Tribes of Israel; and the twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit. Twelve is also the Scriptural number representing completeness."

So, the original "partridge on a pear tree" is Christ on the Cross. Here is a striking image from a mural in the Church of St. Clement in Rome depicting Christ on the Cross that is also the tree of life.

I do not want to raise the controversial issue of why Catholics were persecuted in sixteenth century England, a country loyal to that Faith for over a thousand years, but I would like to say a few words about persecution in our time.

For the past 250 years many people, especially intellectuals, have come to believe that Christianity is the great enemy of humankind. Many of these intellectuals were born, raised, and educated as Christians but some proverbial "bee up their ass" made them not only turn against their religious tradition, but also vehemently attack it. They believed that Christianity was a superstition that stood in the way of reason and progress.

Opponents of Christianity regarded it as the enemy of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. For them the destruction and downfall of Christianity would usher in a new age of peace and human advancement. Little did they understand that since its inception Christianity had been the bulwark against all the different kinds of barbarism. Although Hitler was a bitter opponent of Christianity because of its Jewish origins, critics still try to blame Christianity for the Holocaust. In Russia Joseph Stalin despised his Christian roots and under his rule Communists murdered over twenty million people to create their workers' paradise.

When you attack Christianity, you don't get peace and prosperity, you get anything from gang killings in our cities to ISIS, the Taliban, and Boko Haran. It would appear that these terrorists fear Christianity more than American military might. Jesus spent his life teaching and healing. He has always been called the Prince of Peace. At Mass today Catholics recited Psalm 72:

Justice shall flourish in his time,
and fullness of peace for ever.

Today, peace seems further away from ever but at Christmas we can still hope. Here's a link to a lovely video featuring Vince Gill and daughter singing "Let there be Peace on Earth."


*Note: I came across this interpretation some years ago and it seemed very plausible. As my friend David in England notes in the comment below, it is not the only interpretation of the symbolism of the Twelve Days of Christmas carol that still today remains shrouded in mystery.

1 comment:

  1. The following from a friend in England is very much appreciated.

    "I very much enjoyed reading your weekly bystander. I hadn’t heard of the interpretation you offer of the twelve days of Christmas before. Reading round it, I see that not everyone agrees with this interpretation, but I found it convincing. My only quibble would be that the elements mentioned – angel, apostles, wounds of Christ and so on – don’t seem to me to be specifically Catholic ones – I would have thought it would have been perfectly acceptable to sing this as a Christian song across all denominations.
    I’m also going to quibble a little about your dates! You say that ‘Catholics in England were forbidden to practice their faith openly during the years from 1538 to 1829’. The key date, I think, should have been 1791 – in this year a bill was passed enabling British Catholics to practice religion without fear of civil penalties. I’ve always had an interest in this because of the situation in Winchester – please excuse me if I have rambled on about this before!
    When you were with us you will remember going to St. Peter’s church on Sunday. Behind St Peter’s is a building, now the church hall, with an extraordinary history. I’m attaching a photo. Built in 1792, it was the first Catholic church in England to be consecrated since the reformation, and the first church in England in the Gothic revival style. It is named after John Milner, the priest who built the church - he went on to become a bishop.
    The previous priest in Winchester did have a chapel – converted from his garden shed! Before that Catholic worship was discretely done in houses – not far from where we live there is an eighteenth century house with a cross on its roof – there was a Catholic chapel there long ago. In fact, perhaps surprisingly, Winchester, and the villages near to us, were notoriously ‘recusant’; it is said that Queen Mary married Philip of Spain in Winchester because of the Catholic sympathisers here.
    It seems that persecution of Catholics for practicing their faith pretty well ended around 1766 with the Papal acceptance of the Hanoverians, but, as you say, it wasn’t until 1829 that full emancipation happened – even after that there were restrictions regarding universities." David