Friday, December 5, 2003

Five Rings to Rule Them All

Most of us know the "The Twelve Days of Christmas" – even if we can't remember how many lords were leaping or maids were milking. At the least we know there were five gold rings and a bird in a fruit tree.

But beneath the nonsense rhyming and hideously antiquated notions of good gift giving (seriously...who needs all those drummers and their incessant drumming!). And while the authenticity of the hidden meaning of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" remains a subject for historical and religious debate – at least among academia – popular opinion holds that the the song is actually code for twelve significant elements of Catholic catechism.

Those sneaky Catholics...

On the surface, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" are just that – the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany (December 25 to January 6). Various Christian traditions interpret these days differently, but in the West, these are counted as the days between Christ's birth and the visitation by the three eastern kings.

For the symbolic gifts of the song, however, there are purported hidden meanings.

From 1558 to 1829, it was illegal to openly or privately practice Catholicism in England. As a result, English Catholics developed subtle ways to teach their catechism and practice their fugitive faith. One example may be the "The Twelve Days of Christmas." The song served as a mnemonic device relating the "true love" – God – to the individual Catholic, which each day's corresponding gift symbolic of an important religious lesson:

A Partridge in a Pear Tree

The partridge is Jesus, whose birthday we celebrate on Christmas. In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge feigning injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings, recalling the Christ's sadness over the fate of Jerusalem.

Two Turtle Doves

The Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible.

Three French Hens
The three theological virtues: Faith, hope, and love.

Four Calling Birds
The four Gospels of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Five Gold Rings
The first five books of the Old Testament, known as the Torah or the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

Six Geese A-laying
The six days of creation, as described in Genesis.

Seven Swans A-swimming
The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: Prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion.

Eight Maids A-Milking
The eight beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake.

Nine Ladies Dancing
The nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Ten Lords A-Leaping

The ten commandments: You shall have no other gods before me; do not make an idol; do not take God's name in vain; remember the Sabbath; honor your father and mother; do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness; do not covet.

Eleven Pipers Piping
The eleven faithful apostles: Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James bar Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, Judas bar James. The list does not include the twelfth disciple, Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus to the Romans.

Twelve Drummers Drumming
The twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed: I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth; I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord; He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary; He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, was buried and descended into hell; On the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father; He will come again to judge the living and the dead; I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.

It should be pointed out that this interpretation of the "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is not universally accepted. Likewise, the evidence supporting it is not clear – the contemporaneous production of explanatory material during the time of England's religious wars would have been foolhardy at best, suicidal at worst. On the inverse, dispelling evidence is equally lacking.

Regardless, this theory gives an otherwise nonsensical rhyme more meaning and significance. And it teases us with another fine example of pre-modern communication design. fb

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