12 Days of Christmas, Plus 1

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” seems like an anodyne to dissension and discord wreaking havoc in today’s world.

Generations of carolers have sung the simple tale of lords, ladies, maids, pipers, drummers and birds. Lots of birds.

But, like pretty much anything else, it’s not that simple.


A Song and Celebrations

Gifts, Quacking Ducks and Assorted Origins

'Twelfth Night Merry-Making in Farmer Shakeshaft's Barn,' from Ainsworth's Mervyn Clitheroe, by Phiz

The English Christmas carol started in France. Or northern England’s Newcastle upon Tyne region. Or maybe Scotland or the Faroe Islands. Or somewhere else.

The lyrics are variable.

The familiar “calling birds” have been canary birds, colley birds, collie birds, colly birds, colour’d birds, coloured birds, corley birds and curley birds.

One version includes ducks quacking.

I don’t know about the ducks, but I like the idea of curley birds. Possibly because I watched The Three Stooges as a child, and that’s another topic.

Then there’s all that gift-giving:

  • Gifts in “Twelve Days of Christmas”
    • 12 Partridges (1 x 12 = 12)
    • 22 Doves (2 x 11 = 22)
    • 30 Hens (3 x 10 = 30)
    • 36 Calling birds (4 x 9 = 36)
    • 40 Golden rings (5 x 8 = 40)
    • 42 Geese (6 x 7 = 42)
    • 42 Swans (7 x 6 = 42)
    • 40 Maids (8 x 5 = 40)
    • 36 Ladies (9 x 4 = 36)
    • 30 Lords (10 x 3 = 30)
    • 22 Pipers (11 x  2 = 22)
    • 12 Drummers (12 x  1 = 12)
  • 364 gifts total

It’s the sort of wanton wantonness that Puritans tried to outlaw. Unsuccessfully.

They had a point, though.

Midwinter celebrations have a long history of getting out of hand.

Ancient Rome had Saturnalia.

Medieval France had the Feast of Fools. Which was a small social revolution. Or was promoted by clergy. Or was something else.

England had Lord of Misrule. Until Henry VIII stopped it.

Oddly enough, I haven’t run across a discussion or condemnation of the maids, ladies, lords, pipers and drummers being given as gifts in “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

They’re not the sort of thing we see in card and gift shops.1

And that’s good news. Treating human beings like merchandise is a bad idea and we shouldn’t do it. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2414)

Geese a-laying, Leaping Lords and Pipers Piping

Getting back to partridges in pear trees, leaping lords and all that — many folks have looked for hidden or lost meanings in the carol.

Perhaps because today’s lyrics lack an obvious message or story, and they think songs should be instructive.

Or maybe because many folks enjoy looking for hidden or lost meanings.

One chap said that the first seven days were all about birds.

Another suggested that the lyrics were a clandestine catechism for England’s closet Catholics. I’ve talked about Henry VIII’s wives, his nationalized church and a balky Lord Chancellor before. (January 6, 2019)

I gather that the clandestine catechism scenario is unlikely, since the song’s gifts weren’t uniquely Catholic.2 Makes a good story, though.

I suspect that the song spread and developed as it did because folks thought it was fun.

That doesn’t mean I think it’s meaningless in the pejorative sense. I’m pretty sure that things are fun for a reason. Many reasons, most likely. And that’s yet another topic.


Perceptions and the Catechism’s Subdivisions

An 11, or 12, Point List

A little quick checking into the clandestine catechism scenario led me to an article about Ann Ball’s “Handbook of Catholic Sacramentals.”

She said that the song’s true love and the partridge in a pear tree as Jesus.3

The partridge thing makes sense. The birds have a reputation for risking their lives by faking an injury and leading predators away from the nest.

The other gifts, according to Ann Ball, were more-or-less familiar parts of Catholic faith.

  1. Two turtle doves
    • The Old and New Testaments
  2. Three French hens
    • Faith, hope, and love
  3. Four calling birds
    • The four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
  4. Five golden rings
    • The first five books of the Old Testament, which describe man’s fall into sin and the great love of God in sending a Savior
  5. Six geese a-laying
    • The six days of creation
  6. Seven swans a-swimming
    • The sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit: Prophesy, Serving, Teaching, Exhortation, Contribution, Leadership, and Mercy.
  7. Eight maids a-milking
    • The eight beatitudes.
  8. Nine ladies dancing
    • The nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: Charity, Joy, Peace, Patience (Forbearance), Goodness (Kindness), Mildness, Fidelity, Modesty, Continency (Chastity)
  9. Ten lords a-leaping
    • The Ten Commandments.
  10. Eleven pipers piping
    • The eleven faithful Apostles.
  11. The twelve drummers drumming
    • The twelve points of belief in The Apostles’ Creed.

Add the partridge, and you’ve got a 12-point list. Many or most of which are shared by all Christians: Catholic and Protestant.

Points of Belief and the Catechism’s Chapters, Articles and Paragraphs

Ann Ball’s twelve points of belief in the Apostles Creed are in the Catechism.

I suspect that identifying Article 1 through Article 12 as points of belief is easier if you’re looking at the table of contents.

And if you decide to see the Articles in the Creed section as unique — not the Catechism’s subdivision between Chapter and Paragraph.

About that: Part One, Section Two, The Creeds, runs from paragraph 185 to 1065.

Which may explain why something-point lists are so popular. They’re a lot simpler, and arguably easy to remember.

Anyway, here’s the Apostles Creed as a 12-point list. The text is from the Catechism’s Part One, Section Two. (Catechism, Credo)

  • Apostles Creed
    1. I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
    2. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
    3. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
    4. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
    5. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again.
    6. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
    7. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
    8. I believe in the Holy Spirit,
    9. The holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints,
    10. The forgiveness of sins,
    11. The resurrection of the body,
    12. And the life everlasting.
  • Amen

Turning Toward the Light

“We Saw His Star”

“When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem,
“saying, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.'”
(Matthew 2:12)

The King Herod in Matthew’s second chapter isn’t the one who interviewed our Lord and (reluctantly) had John the Baptist’s head served on a platter.

The head-on-a-platter Herod was King Herod’s son. Somewhere along the line folks started calling him Herod Antipas. Or Herod Atnipater. The ‘magi’ one is Herod the Great.

I gather that Herod the Great is a controversial figure.

Some say he really was great. They’ve got a point.

Herod the Great made himself about as powerful as a Roman client king could be.

Having every male child in Bethlehem doesn’t seem all that great, which may be why some academics say it’s a non-event that never happened.

It’s recorded in Matthew 2:1618, and nowhere else. Not surprising, maybe, considering how many high-profile folks Herod the Great had killed. Besides, Bethlehem in those days was a no-account town.4 (January 15, 2017)

I’m getting ahead of the story.

Herod’s Solution


(From James Tissot, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(James Tissot’s “The Magi in the House of Herod.” (ca. 1890))

The magi got Herod the Great’s attention by asking about the newborn king of the Jews.

“King of the Jews” was Herod’s title. His surviving sons weren’t babies, which strongly implied that there was another player in the game. One who was after Herod’s job.

The situation called for tact, diplomacy and decisive action.

Herod granted the magi a private audience, learned when and where the (perceived) usurper was born, and told them to report back when they’d found the kid.

The magi found Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. Having been tipped off that Herod should be kept out of the loop, they avoided Jerusalem on their way back.

Meanwhile, Joseph, Mary and Jesus hightailed it for Egypt, leaving before sunrise.

When Herod realized that the magi weren’t following his orders, he followed his usual policy: killing anyone who might be a threat.5

“Magi From the East”


(From James Tissot, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(James Tissot’s “Journey of the Magi.” (1890s))

“We Three Kings of Orient are,
Bearing gifts we traverse afar….”
(“We Three Kings,” John Henry Hopkins Jr. (1857))

That’s among my favorite songs: even though I know that the “kings” were magi, and that we don’t know how many of them there were.

Matthew’s “magi” may have become “kings” in my branch of Western civilization because someone read Psalm 72:11 and figured it connected with Matthew 2:1.

“Magi” comes to us from Avestan, by way of Persian, Greek and Latin. It’s the name of a religious caste who were, among other things, astrologers.

Back in their day, astrology was a respectable and respected natural philosophy. Over the last few centuries we’ve learned that its predictive power is nil. And, as a form of divination, it’s on a short list of bad ideas. (January 8, 2017)

But two millennia back, magi had a reputation something like the scientists at CERN.

We know there were more one magi, because the word is the plural of magus. Folks in my culture generally assume there were three of them because Matthew lists three gifts.

Other branches of Christianity often say there were 12 magi. Either way, they were probably from the Parthian Empire. Or somewhere else east of Judea.

I’m sure they have names. But I don’t know what they are. Not for sure.

We call them Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. Sometimes Melchior is Melichior. Casper’s also called Gaspar, Jaspar, Jaspas, Gathaspa: and more variations on that theme. Balthazar’s name has variations, too: Balthasar, Balthassar, and Bithisarea.

Other folks have other names for them, and some Chinese Christians think one of the magi came from China.6 Which wouldn’t surprise me a bit.

“Just the Beginning of a Great Procession”

The magi “saw his star at its rising” and came to do Jesus homage. (Matthew 2:2)

Matthew doesn’t say what that star was, leaving the field open for speculation.

Folks have said the star was a pious fiction, a miraculous fulfillment of prophecy, and a wide assortment of astronomical phenomena.

Or, from one viewpoint, a Satanic sign which nearly got Jesus killed. Other folks say the star was a bunch of angels.

Books have been written and documentaries filmed, supporting various “Star of Bethlehem” ideas. One explanation, involving a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Regulus, explains why we celebrate Christmas on December 25.

Me? I figure Matthew’s “star” was something the magi noticed. And that light was among its important qualities. (January 6, 2019)

Which brings me to what comes after the 12 days of Christmas: Epiphany.7

That’s when we celebrate our Lord’s adoration by the magi, his baptism and the wedding feast at Cana. And rejoice that folks like me, gentiles, can turn toward “the messianic light of the star of David, the one who will be king of the nations.” (Catechism, 528)

“The Epiphany is a feast of light. ‘Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you’ (Is 60:1). … He who is the true light, and by whom we too are made to be light, has indeed come into the world. He gives us the power to become children of God (cf. Jn 1:9,12). The journey of the wise men from the East is, for the liturgy, just the beginning of a great procession that continues throughout history….”
(Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, Pope Benedict XVI (January 6, 2012))

And that’s something to celebrate:


1 Celebrations, history, a song and slavery:

2 Speculations:

3 More speculation:

4 Herodian dynasty and Bethlehem’s boys:

5 My view:

6 Magi, mostly:

7 A star, light and hope:

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Christmas, Octaves and History

The American holiday and Christmas seasons overlap, with fuzzy terminuses. Termini. Beginnings and endings.

For some, Christmas starts with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

That fine old American tradition has been joined by Cyber Monday.

Oddly enough, I haven’t noticed anguished laments over that newfangled technology and Macy’s inflated cartoon characters.

Or a deluge of dismay at rampant commercialism and unseemly frivolity.

Maybe I haven’t been looking hard enough. Or in the right places. “Right” for that particular Puritan perspective. (December 24, 2019; June 1, 2018)

For many of us, the American Christmas season ends a day or so after the 25th.

It makes sense, from at least one viewpoint.

With New Year’s Eve less than a week away, Christmassy decorations must give way to streamers and confetti. And, of course, the traditional party horns.

But our household’s Christmas tree is still up and decorated.

That’s partly because of this family’s lifestyle. We’re not party people. Except maybe for me. I’ve often watched live video of New York City’s Times Square celebration. And called it a day shortly after the Waterford Crystal ball dropped.

Where was I? Holiday seasons. Christmas. Comics. Times Square. Right.

Christmas celebrations have been a big deal for traditionally Christian countries. No surprises there.

They’re also a big deal in some countries where most folks aren’t Christians. Like Japan, where folks put up Christmas trees, exchange gifts and get together on Christmas Eve. And, apparently thanks to a 1970s ad campaign, eat at Kentucky Fried Chicken.1

Minnesota’s Snow


(Our Lady of Angels, Sauk Centre, Minnesota, Saturday afternoon. (January 2, 2015))

Here in central Minnesota, folks with Christmas yard displays usually set them up shortly after Thanksgiving.

I figure that’s because this is Minnesota.

Winter’s snow can come early. The earliest snowfall recorded by the National Weather Service was August 31, 1949, in Duluth. Or September 14, 1964 in International Falls.

Which you pick depends on how you define “snowfall.” Duluth’s was a trace. International Falls got a third of an inch: one centimeter.

Both cities are in northern Minnesota, a bit over 200 miles north of Sauk Centre.

The earliest recorded snow here was the snowstorm of September 24-26, 1942. Then there was the October 1880 blizzard, and that’s another topic.2

Christmas Lights and a Calendar


(From L’Osservatore Romano, via Catholic News Agency, used w/o permission.)
(St. Peter’s Square, December 7, 2019: lighting the tree and Nativity scene.)

I haven’t kept track of when most folks turn on their displays. It’s probably around the start of Advent.

When the lights go off varies. For some, it’s soon after Christmas. Others keep their displays lit for another week or so. Or longer.

I think that makes sense. Partly because it’s my family’s custom.

And partly because our my family’s custom comes from the liturgical calendar.

Advent and Octaves

Advent starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, the Sunday closest to St. Andrew’s day. Except when Christmas day is a Monday — it’s complicated.

Whenever Advent starts, Christmas is December 25. I mentioned that on Christmas Eve. (December 24, 2019)

Christmastide starts toward the end of Christmas Eve and runs 12 days. It’s pretty much the same as Twelvetide.

New Year’s Day is the Octave of Christmas.

“Octave” in this context is what happened to “octava dies” after passing through French and landing in England.

I don’t know what would have happened if duodecimus dies had taken the same route. Maybe we’d be saying Duodechetide instead of Twelvetide. I don’t know nearly enough philology to work that out.

Emperor Constantine I gets credit for making eight-day celebrations part of Christian worship. Or celebrations on the eighth day after another celebration. That was early in the fourth century.

Fast-forward to the seventh century. European Christians started adding octave celebrations to Saints’ feast days: one extra celebration, eight days after the Saint’s day.

Fast-forward again, this time to the 16th century. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation were in progress, the Council of Trent had wrapped up a few years previously, and Europe’s religion-themed wars had begun.

Pope Pius V cut back the number of liturgical octaves.

I think it’s likely that some 16th century folks were upset by having fewer official octaves. And blamed Pius V and/or the Council of Trent for destroying the Catholic Church.

Skipping ahead to Popes Leo XIII and St. Pius X.

They changed octaves again. That was in the late 19th and early 20th century.3

And the Catholic Church is still here. (July 30, 2017)

The Octave of Christmas

Which brings me to the octave of Christmas, January 1.

It’s also the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God.

And a Holy Day of Obligation, which makes getting to Mass a priority.

I don’t have a problem with that. I follow Jesus of Nazareth, son of God, who is human on his mother’s side.

Showing respect toward my Lord’s mother makes sense. (May 14, 2017)

Happy New Year!

I’ve got more to say about Christmas traditions, Tradition, Twelvetide and “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

But I’m running out of 2019, so that’ll wait for another day.

More posts, related and otherwise:


1 Celebrations:

2 Minnesota records:

3 History and celebrations:

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New on Blogroll+ — Word on Fire Catholic Ministries

I finished reading “Letter to a Suffering Church” this weekend. It’s Bishop Robert Barron’s discussion of the sexual abuse scandal that’s been momentarily eclipsed by election-year sturm und drang. And that’s a topic for another day. Topics.

There's nothing quite so lovely as a brightly burning book, 'The Pogo Papers,' Walt Kelly (1952, 1953)The book’s publisher is Word on Fire.

Which, oddly enough, has nothing to do with Walt Kelly’s Pogo books or book burning. And that’s yet another topic.

Anyway, the book’s publisher is part of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, “a nonprofit global media apostolate that supports the work of Bishop Robert Barron and reaches millions of people to draw them into— or back to— the Catholic faith.”

That quote’s from Word on Fire Catholic Ministries’ “About Word on Fire” page.

Their website has a great many resources: some free, some you could buy. Or not. That’s up to you. The site and its content seemed interesting enough for my Blogroll+, so now there’s a new item in the “Media” section.

More (or less) of the same, on A Catholic Citizen in America:

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Another Death in the Family

A family get-together was supposed to be happening at our house today.

It’s been canceled or rescheduled. I don’t know which.

That’s probably just as well. There’s a winter weather advisory here, and a winter storm warning over the county line north and west. Which here in Sauk Centre is about a mile and eight miles, respectively.

We’re expecting between a hundredth and a tenth of an inch of ice and maybe three inches of snow. And sleet in Sunday’s early hours. This is why I prefer sincerely cold weather. And that’s another topic.

Noon, Christmas Eve

What threw a spanner in the works, scotched, disrupted and discombobulated our plans was a death in the family.

Around noon (we’re in the UTC -6 time zone) on Christmas Eve, my wife’s brother’s wife had a heart attack.

They were both at their home. He applied CPR, an ambulance took her to a hospital, and she died.

My wife got a call from a kinswoman a couple hours later.

When the conversation was over, my wife made more calls. By that evening, I figure everyone who was near their telephone or online connection knew what had happened. Our family’s grapevine is fairly efficient.

One of my brothers-in-law was with the now-widower by the time this household got the news. For that, I’m glad. He, the widower, is and will be grieving. A lot.

This will affect family plans for the next week or so, probably beyond. How, I’ve no idea. Nobody does, likely enough.

Oddly enough, I’m not experiencing emotional responses to my sister-in-law’s death. Apart from part of a holiday song playing on a loop in my head. And insomnia. Experience suggests that the feelings will come when my brain’s failsafes go back to standby mode.

As I said, this is going to be interesting.

Death Happens

People die. That’s been an inescapable fact throughout history.

Folks have learned to be resigned to death, we’ve learned how to delay death.

But somehow, it just doesn’t feel right.

And small wonder, since we’re made “in the image of God.”

And that’s almost another topic. (Genesis 1:2628; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 355379, 10061014; “Gaudium et Spes,” 18)

I don’t look forward to my death, or anyone else’s. It’s a bit like the feelings I had about finals week, back in my college days.

Like everyone else, I’ll experience my particular judgment after I die: a sort of final evaluation. (Catechism, 10211037, 10421050)

I’ve talked about that before. (September 30, 2018 ; March 11, 2018)

Grief and Hope

I have no idea why my sister-in-law — I think that’s the right term — died on Christmas Eve.

It feels monumentally unfair.

But as I’ve said in another context, God’s God, I’m not, and I’m okay with that. Grudgingly, sometimes, and that’s yet another topic.

I also don’t know how I’d provide support or comfort to my brother-in-law, or if I’ll have the opportunity.

There’s more to say, but I’m not up to sorting out ideas and arranging words on that topic. Those topics. Not today.

Maybe these quotes will do for now. Or maybe not.

“…The centre of every man’s existence is a dream. Death, disease, insanity, are merely material accidents, like toothache or a twisted ankle. That these brutal forces always besiege and often capture the citadel does not prove that they are the citadel….”
(“Twelve Types,” G. K. Chesterton (1906) via Google Books)

“Life is eternal; and love is immortal; and death is only a horizon; and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.”
(From Carly Simon, Fr. Bede Jarrett, William Penn, or Rossiter W. Raymond.1)

Or these, from St. Augustine of Hippo and the Bible.

“Of necessity we must be sorrowful when those whom we love leave us in death. Although we know that they have not left us behind forever but only gone ahead of us, still when death seizes our loved one, our loving hearts are saddened by death itself. … Our weakness weights us down, but faith bears us up. We sorrow over the human condition, but find our healing in the divine promise.”
(Sermon 172, St. Augustine of Hippo (ca. 400) via Universe of Faith)

“Do not avoid those who weep,
but mourn with those who mourn.”
(Sirach 7:35)

“The number of their days seems great
if it reaches a hundred years.
“Like a drop of water from the sea and a grain of sand,
so are these few years among the days of eternity.
“That is why the Lord is patient with them
and pours out his mercy on them.”
(Sirach 18:911)

“But as it is written:
‘What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard,
and what has not entered the human heart,
what God has prepared for those who love him,'”
(1 Corinthians 2:9)

“I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them [as their God].
“He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, [for] the old order has passed away.'”
(Revelation 21:34)

Related posts:


1 “Life is eternal…” is from the fourth track of the Have You Seen Me Lately Carly Simon album and a poem by Fr. Bede Jarrett; which he said he copied from something William Penn wrote. Or it’s from Rossiter W. Raymond’s “Death is Only an Horizon.”

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