Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas History and Facts: The Twelve Days of Christmas

Have you ever seen swans swimming in a pond and thought I should get that as a gift for my sweetie? Yeah me either especially when, according to PNC’s Christmas Price Index, it would cost $6300 to make that happen. As we all know that wonderfully repetitive song, the 12 Days of Christmas which gets played so often this time of year, however if one were to purchase all of those gifts for their significant other it would cost them a whopping $24,263. But seriously who in their right mind would buy all of these gifts for an individual or in what century would someone have purchased turtle doves and men jumping around as a Christmas gift. The question is when and why was this song created?
Many people hear the 12 days of Christmas and believe they are gifts leading up to Christmas Day, the 12th day, however the first day, a partridge in a pear tree, starts on Christmas Day and ends on January 5th. The period after Christmas is a Christian celebration dating as far back as the Middle Ages known as Christmastide, Twelvetide, or Yuletide. Whatever the name may be, this period after Christmas is meant for reflection on the birth of Jesus Christ with traditional feasts such as the feast of St. Stephen, which is meant to give leftovers to the poor, along with the feast of John the Evangelist and the feast of the Holy Innocents. Many of these traditions and celebrations vary throughout different countries and various religions. Here in the United States the traditions and celebrations of the Twelve Days of Christmas had largely been forgotten and relegated to a song.  
So the question is what is the origin of the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”? The song was published for the first time in England in 1780 however many historians believe its origins are French and the song could date back much further than that. Why the song was written and published at the time is unknown. In 1979, a Canadian teacher wrote an article suggesting that the song 12 days were coded catechisms for the Catholic Church. His argument was that the English people were not permitted to practice Catholicism publically from 1558-1829 so they secretly celebrated their traditions of Twelve Night through the song. Here are each of the meanings.
A Partridge in a Pear Tree –          Jesus
Two Turtle Doves  –                          The Old and New Testament
Three French Hens –                        The Kings bearing gifts
Four Callet (Calling) Birds –          The Four Gospels
Five Golden Rings –                          The Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible)
Six Geese-a-Laying –                       The Six Days of Creation
Seven Swans-a-Swimming –          Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit
Eight Maids-a-Milking –                  The Eight Beatitudes
Nine Ladies Dancing –                     Nine Fruits of the Spirit
Ten Lords-a-Leaping –                     The Ten Commandments
Eleven Pipers Piping –                     Eleven Apostles
Twelve Drummers Drumming –    Twelve Points of the Apostles Creed
However there are some problems in this theory. For one the first mention over the last century about a coded catechism in this song is with this Canadian teacher. The idea had been further perpetrated by religious scholars however with little additional evidence. You would have to believe that there would be more significant sources to back up this claim over the last couple centuries. The other major problem is that most of these meanings are not a departure from the Protestant church. In reality they are directly in line with nearly all major Christian denominations and faiths. The actual origin of the song and its purpose are unknown with ideas ranging from a child’s counting song, to a memory game played during Twelve Night in which the leader would start and would have to memorize the subsequent verses given by the participants. Whatever the purpose and origin of the song one thing we do know is that there are a “Twelve Days of Christmas” which do not lead up to Christmas Day but actually begin then. 

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