Once again we gather to celebrate Christmas. For some 2,000 years Christians have remembered the Incarnation as well as the Parousia. Through great persecution as well as peace we have remembered the coming of Jesus into our world. I am always amazed at the creativity utilized to profess our faith. Sometimes the meaning of our traditions can be lost over time. For example, consider storyteller William J. Bausch’s explanation of the old song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” was written in the sixteenth century. Moreover, it was written by a couple of wily Jesuits who were playing a dangerous game. For you see, this was sixteenth-century England and in sixteenth-century England anything Catholic was prohibited and, if found out, was punishable by imprisonment and death. As a result, the Catholic faith was forced underground. Still, there was, as you can imagine, a desperate need to encourage the faith and, above all, to instill it into the next generation. So these Jesuits came up with a way to teach the outline of faith—but in code. And the code was a song. It sounds harmless enough to us, but let us look at it more closely.
The twelve days of Christmas, as everyone knew, was the nativity celebration from Christmas Day to Epiphany. “My true love said to me” is God speaking to the anonymous Catholic.
“Twelve lords a leaping” are not, as you might guess, the twelve Apostles, but rather the twelve beliefs outlined in the Apostles Creed.
“Eleven pipers piping” are the eleven apostles—Judas having left—who pipe the faith in an unbroken tradition.
“Ten ladies dancing” are the Ten Commandments.
“Nine drummers drumming” are the nine choirs of angels.
“Eight maids a milking” are the eight beatitudes.
“Seven swans a swimming” are, of course, the seven sacraments.
“Six geese a-laying” are the six precepts of the Church.
“Five golden rings” are the Pentateuch, the first books of the Bible.
“Four calling birds” are the four gospels, which sing the Good News; “three French hens” are the three gifts the Magi brought; “two turtledoves” are the old and new testaments; and, finally, of course, “partridge in the pear tree” is the resplendent Christ reigning from the cross.
Now, for the uninitiated sixteenth-century non-Catholic Englanders (and for most people today), the song was a simple holiday pleasantry. But for those who were playing hide-and-seek with their faith, it was a coded outline from which one could unfold the truths of faith, a kind of catechism chapter headings, which teachers could secretly use to hang their teachings on.
Today do we show the same ingenuity in the evangelization of our faith? May God bless our efforts. The world and especially our youth are counting on us!
Fr. Brian Fier