The Twelve Days of Christmas– a history and conspiracy theory.
The Twelve Days of Christmas was supposedly written during a time when Catholics were being persecuted in England and some believe that it is a secret catechism that could be sung in public without risking arrest.
On the first day of Christmas my True Love gave to me…
A Partridge in a Pear Tree– this represents Christ on the cross.
Two turtle doves– the old and new testaments of the Bible.
Three French Hens– faith, hope and love.
Four Calling Birds– the four gospels.
Five Golden Rings– the Hebrew Torah (first five books of the old testament).
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– the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit.
Ten Lords A-leaping– the Ten Commandments.
Eleven Pipers Piping– the eleven faith apostles.
Twelve Drummers drumming– the twelve points of doctrine of the Apostles Creed.
Does it sound a bit fanciful? A little far-fetched? Without stretching things, here is what is known for sure about the Twelve Days of Christmas (Twelvetide) as celebrated in Tudor England:
A Lord of Misrule was elected at Christmas and ruled the festivities until Epiphany. A schoolboy was also chosen as bishop on December 6 (the Feast of St. Nicholas) and filled all the functions of bishop until Holy Innocents’ Day. This was also the time for the cutting and burning of the Yule Log. In England, the Yule log was a great trunk of an oak tree, cut on the previous Candlemas. Oak was the summer king of the forest in the religion of the Druids, who gave way to the holly in winter. Various pagan ceremonies and customs surrounded the burning of the Yule log. The log itself was usually decorated and it was always lit with a bit of the log saved from the previous year.
Broken down day by day, here are twelve days of Christmas according to the religious calendar.
December 25 commemorates the birth of Jesus. Traditionally, there were three celebrations of the Eucharist on Christmas: the Midnight Mass, the Mass of Dawn, and the Mass of the Day. The Midnight Mass, is about the birth of Jesus. The Mass of Dawn, is about the visit of the shepherds. The Mass of the Day, focuses attention on the mystery of the Word made flesh.
December 26 is the feast of St. Stephen—a traditional day for giving leftovers to the poor (best known in the carol Good King Wenceslas). As one of the first deacons, Stephen was the first of all those who show the love of Christ by their generosity to the poor. He was the first martyr of the New Covenant. This feast was dedicated to the deacons. It is now also known as Boxing Day or Wren Day.
December 27 is the feast of St. John the Evangelist, the only one of the twelve disciples who did not die a martyr. Rather, John witnessed the Incarnation with his affirmation, The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. (John 1:14, KJV). This is the time for the Blessing of the Wine. This feast was dedicated to the priests.
December 28 is the feast of the Holy Innocents, the children murdered by Herod. They represent those who suffer and die through human injustice. The feast of the Holy Innocents was dedicated to young men training for the clergy and serving the altar.
December 29 is the Memorial of St. Thomas Becket, Bishop and Martyr who was murdered by four knights from the court of Henry II. He had three crows on his coat of arms. You can observe this day by filling your bird feeders or putting out walnuts for the crows.
December 30 the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
December 31st is the feast of Pope St. Sylvester or Saint Silvester Night. He oversaw the First Council of Nicaea and Roman Emperor Constantine I’s conversion to Christianity. Wassailing was traditional.
January 1 is the feast of Fools dedicated to the sub-deacons and also the circumcision of Christ. It is also known as The Solemnity of Mary. Children visited their godparents to receive a blessing and a gift.
January 2 is the feast of Saint Basil the Great and Saint Gregory of Nazianzus.
January 3 is the Memorial of the Holy Name of Jesus.
January 4 is the feast of Saint Simon Stylites (who lives on a small platform on the top of a pillar for 37 years!).
January 5 is Twelfth Night Eve. This was the time when The Lord of Misrule presided over the revels where there is dancing and pantomimes and wassailing. The Lord of Misrule was usually a servant and it was sometimes called Topsy-Turvy Night. He was chosen at random when he found the coin hidden inside a slice of massive cake. In France they sometimes baked a small crown into the cake instead of a coin. Different types of pipes were played, including bagpipes. Egg games like tossing an egg between two people moving further apart during each throw and passing an egg around on spoons were common. Another game was snapdragon where you picked raisins or other dried fruit out of a tray of flaming brandy. We know this day the best of the twelve (after Christmas itself) because of Shakespeare’s play. If music be the food of love, play on….
January 6 Epiphany when the celebration of Christmas comes to an end. Also known as Three Kings’ Day, or The Feast of the Magi. This is the time to have your house blessed.
As a foot note, until the 15th century, France also celebrated the Feast of the Ass on January 14th, commemorating the donkey who carried Mary and present at the manger at Christ’s birth. On this day, people were supposed to bray like a donkey at the points in the Mass where one would normally say Amen. I double-dog-dare you to try it now :-). Happy La Fête de l’âne!