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 was 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 killed 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 than 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:

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
This entry was posted in Being Catholic, Discursive Detours and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to 12 Days of Christmas, Plus 1

  1. irishbrigid says:

    Wrong word: “She said that the song’s true love and the partridge in a pear tree as Jesus.”

    Missing word: “Having every male child in Bethlehem doesn’t seem all that great”

    Missing word again: “We know there were more one magi”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Thanks for taking time to comment!