The Twelve Days of Christmas

An ancient song, perhaps in code, celebrates giving, giving in abundance, lavish generosity.

Christmas is not just a day

Yme Woensdregt

$116,273.08! That’s in US dollars.

According to PNC Wealth Management in Pittsburgh, that’s how much it would cost to purchase all of the gifts in “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Now if you bought just one of each gift, it would still cost $27,673.22. And if you wanted to buy them online, you’d pay $42,959.07. Just for the convenience, I guess.

Holy Christmas Giving, Batman! Who could afford Christmas at that rate?

It’s a tongue–in–cheek thing of course. It can be fun to look at life from a slightly skewed perspective. On the other hand, who’d want our homes filled with the noise and mess of all these people and animals?

Just to be clear, the 12 Days of Christmas are not the 12 days before Christmas, but the 12 days after Christmas. Christmas is not just a day, but a season. It lasts twelve days, ending on January 5 which is “Twelfth Night”. The feast of Epiphany, which celebrates the arrival of the wise men or magi with their gifts for the infant Jesus, falls on January 6. Many cultures celebrate it as “Three Kings Day”, and give gifts on that day rather than December 25.

We’re not sure when this song originated. The earliest known printed version was in 1780 in a children’s songbook in England, but the song is actually much older than that. Some people see it as a nonsense song for children to help develop their memory: if you forgot one of the gifts, you’d have to pay a penalty.

Others have suggested that it is a song in “code”, meant to teach the basics of the Christian faith. They say the carol dates back to the time of the religious wars in England, beginning in the 1550’s when Catholicism was outlawed.

Honestly, we just don’t know where this carol came from. There’s no solid evidence either way. But so what? It could be either, neither or both. The carol is fun to sing — well, once or twice, maybe, as long as you don’t do it too often.

So … what might these teachings be? My “true love” is none other than God, who gives all this gifts to “me” who waits with open hands to receive God’s blessings gratefully.

The “partridge in a pear tree” symbolically represents Christ as a mother partridge which feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings. It recalls Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem in Luke 13: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

The two turtle doves stand in for the Old and New Testaments, which tell the story of God’s love for the world.

Three french hens celebrate the three virtues of faith, hope and love (1 Corinthians 13:13).

Four calling birds are the four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Five golden rings represent the first five books of the Old Testament, the Torah.

Six geese a–laying celebrates six days of creation.

Seven swans a–swimming for the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit listed in Romans 12: 6–8: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading and compassion.

Eight maids a–milking represent the eight beatitudes in Matthew 5: 3–10.

Nine ladies dancing are the nine gifts of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self–control (Galatians 5:22).

Ten leaping lords for the ten commandments (Exodus 20: 1–20).

Eleven pipers for eleven faithful disciples. You will notice that this list excludes Judas Iscariot who betrayed Christ to the Roman authorities.

Finally, twelve drumming drummers represent the twelve points of doctrine found in the Apostles’ Creed.

It’s an interesting list. Whether or not the song was written for that purpose—who knows? All I know is that the twelve days of Christmas are days of celebration and hope, days of wonder and delight. This is a time to celebrate God’s presence in the world, a time to dream of what might be.

The song celebrates giving, giving in abundance, lavish generosity. Above all, that’s what Christmas is … a celebration of God’s lavish generosity to the world. May your twelve days of Christmas be a real celebration of God’s love, and may your life be filled with abundance and joy.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook

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