Christmas Traditions: The Twelve Days

“On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me….” Every time I hear this carol it makes me smile, for more than one reason. It brings back my days as a preschool teacher, when the class knew few of the lyrics other than “five gold rings”, which they would sing out at the top of their lungs at the appropriate time every stanza. It also reminds me of my son, who when little loved to sing “a partridge apitch a pear tree. ”

But here in America, Christmas really last only 2 days, so what’s this about 12?

Of course it has its roots in the Christmas story itself, when the three Magi took a journey of twelve days to find and visit the baby Jesus. This idea seems to have come to life in medieval Europe, where celebrations started on Christmas Eve and continued till the eve of Epiphany, the 5th of January. Epiphany itself, January 6th, is the day commemorating the arrival of the Magi. The Yule log was kept burning throughout this interval, and it was a bad omen if extinguished or allowed to go out. One of Shakespeare’s comedies is called Twelfth Night, which was a festive occasion involving serious revelry and elaborate disguises, frequently with men dressing as women and vice versa. A special cake baked with a bean inside was served, with the bean finder honored as King of Queen of the day and served by all, including his/her betters. Another manifestation was the choosing of  a Lord of Misrule to direct all the mayhem and hilarity.

What about the gifts in the carol? Who needs all those musicians and animals anyway? It is thought by some that the gifts are actually all from God, the”true Love” of the song, but this cannot be proved by existing evidence. But it’s interesting to think about it this way.

partridge = Jesus Christ

2 turtledoves = the Old and New Testaments

3 French hens = faith, hope and charity

4 calling birds = the four gospels

5 gold rings = the first 5 books of the Old Testament

6 geese alaying = the 6 days of creation

7 swans aswimming = the 7 sacraments

8 maids amilking = the 8 beatitudes

9 ladies dancing = the 9 fruits of the Holy Spirit

10 lords aleaping = the 10 Commandments

11 pipers piping = the 11 faithful apostles

12 drummers drumming = the 12 tenets of the Apostle’s Creed.

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