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Catholic News Herald

Serving Christ and Connecting Catholics in Western North Carolina

122116 12 days christmasEveryone is familiar with the Christmas song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” To most it’s a delightful nonsense rhyme set to music. But the carol had a quite serious purpose when it was written during the 16th century.

Catholics in England during the period 1558 to 1829 were prohibited from any practice of their faith by law – private or public. It was a crime to be a Catholic.

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” was written as one of the “catechism songs” to help young Catholics learn the tenets of their faith – a memory aid, when to be caught with anything in writing indicating adherence to the Catholic faith could not only get a person imprisoned, it could get them killed.

The song’s gifts are hidden meanings to the teachings of the faith.

The 12 days which the song refers to are the 12 days between the birth of Christ on Dec. 25 and Epiphany on Jan. 6 (which on the U.S. Church calendar is transferred to Sunday, Jan. 8).

The “true love” mentioned in the song doesn’t refer to an earthly suitor, it refers to God Himself. The “me” who receives the presents refers to every baptized person. The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In the carol, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge which feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings, much in memory of the expression of Christ’s sadness over the fate of Jerusalem: “Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered thee under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but thou wouldst not have it so...”

The other symbols mean the following:

2 Turtle Doves: The Old and New Testaments

3 French Hens: Faith, Hope and Charity, the theological virtues

4 Calling Birds: the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists

5 Golden Rings: The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the “Pentateuch”, which gives the history of man’s fall from grace.

6 Geese A-laying: the six days of creation

7 Swans A-swimming: the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments

8 Maids A-milking: the eight beatitudes

9 Ladies Dancing: the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit

10 Lords A-leaping: the 10 commandments

11 Pipers Piping: the 11 faithful Apostles

12 Drummers Drumming: the 12 points of doctrine in the Apostles’ Creed

Our observance of Christmas also includes important feast days in honor of St. Stephen, the first martyr (Dec. 26); St. John the Evangelist (Dec. 27); and the Holy Innocents, the infants slain by King Herod (Dec. 28 – refer to Matt 2:16-18). These are known as the “comites Christi” (“Companions of Christ”) because their lives gave unique witness to Jesus through martyrdom. Stephen experienced a red martyrdom, spilling his blood for the sake of his faith; John the Evangelist lived a white martyrdom being sent into exile on the island of Patmos; and the Holy Innocents suffered an innocent martyrdom because they had been born around the time of Christ’s birth.

Other Christmas feasts include the Holy Family (Dec. 30) and Mary, Mother of God (Jan. 1).

— Reprinted from EWTN, courtesy of Father Hal Stockert, Catholic Information Network; US Catholic