Sunday, January 11, 2015

The First Day of Christmas? Part IV

Welcome to Part IV, the final installment in the series about the First Day of Christmas.



What, Christmas on January 11th, you say? I deliberately waited until the third Sunday after Christmas to post this final installment inspired by the song, Twelve Days of Christmas. This series of posts has been my stab at a definitive answer to these four perennial questions:





  • What is the first day of Christmas? December 26
  • What do we mean by the Christmas Season? Let's call it Dec 6 through January 6
  • Thinking about the song and all the gifts on each of those days, how many presents arrive in all? A whopping 364! 
  • And speaking of gifts, is there any significance behind the seemingly random gift choices? 


  • We tackled the third question in Part III of the series. Missed it? Get caught up HERE.

    And now, 
    wrapping things up 
    with Part IV:


    You know the famous song and have sung (or heard it sung) it many times at Christmas.

    On the twelfth day of Christmas
    my true love gave to me:
    Twelve Drummers Drumming
    Eleven Pipers Piping
    Ten Lords a-Leaping
    Nine Ladies Dancing
    Eight Maids a-Milking
    Seven Swans a-Swimming
    Six Geese a-Laying
    Five Golden Rings
    Four Calling Birds
    Three French Hens
    Two Turtle Doves and
    a Partridge in a Pear Tree

    Read more: HERE



    Where did all these wacky gift ideas come from? I mean, if I wanted to demonstrate my true love in the same way, my lady would need a barn for all the cows, swans, geese, birds, hens, doves, and partridges. (Some sources state that the five rings are not jewelry but ring-necked birds, such as the Ring-necked Pheasant. Great--even more birds!) Not to mention a very large house and food budget for all the drummers, pipers, lords, ladies, and maids. Why not sweaters, pajamas, and music CDs?

    Perhaps you have heard the popular explanation that the gifts are actually part of a shadow catechism--that parents used the song to teach their children about the Bible during a time of religious persecution. A common version of that story looks like this:
    The songs gifts are hidden meanings to the teachings of the faith. The "true love" mentioned in the song doesn't refer to an earthly suitor, it refers to God Himself. The "me" who receives the presents refers to every baptized person.
    The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
    2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments
    3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
    4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
    5 Golden Rings = The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
    6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
    7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
    8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
    9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
    10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
    11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
    12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed
    We do not know the author of the interpretation, nor do we know if the story comes before the lyric or after. Read more HERE
    There may be a bit of truth to the idea that this song is a shadow catechism. Jews, Masons, slaves and spies have all devised ways of sending hidden messages in plain sight of persecutors. Christians have not been persecuted in Europe since the end of the Roman Empire. There were no practical reasons for Christians to use a shadow catechism after the Edict of Milan in 313. That said, the idea of linking each of the twelve gifts to the Bible has a precedent.

    The song as we know it today appeared in its earliest known printed version in the 1780 children's book Mirth Without Mischief. The song is apparently much older than this printed version, but we do not currently know how much older. What we do know is that the structure of the song is similar to one called A New Dial.

    Again, from Snopes
    It is possible that "The Twelve Days of Christmas" has been confused with (or is a transformation of) a song called "A New Dial" (also known as "In Those Twelve Days"), which dates to at least 1625 and assigns religious meanings to each of the twelve days of Christmas (but not for the purposes of teaching a catechism).
    Snopes denies that the lyrics to A New Dial were intended to teach a catechism, but that is a matter of opinion, not fact. I think it's entirely possible that A New Dial was indeed used to teach the Bible. Furthermore, it is remotely possible that the structure of twelve things recited in a question-and-answer format goes all the way back to a time when Christians were persecuted. We simply don't know.

    Here is a snippet of A New Dial. It sounds like a catechism to me.

      What are they that are but one?
      We have one God alone
      In heaven above sits on His throne.

      What are they which are but two?
      Two testaments, the old and new,
      We do acknowledge to be true.

      What are they which are but three?
      Three persons in the Trinity
      Which make one God in unity.
    ... and so on, through the number twelve. Read more HERE or in the Table below. 


    My side-by-side comparison of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" with its apparent predecessor, "A New Dial" reveals some similarities and some differences. Note that half (5 of 12) of the items are the same (=) and the other half (7 of 12) are different (X). 

    "A New Dial" (also known as "In Those Twelve Days"), which dates to at least 1625 and assigns religious meanings to each of the twelve days of Christmas."The Twelve Days of Christmas" was presented in its earliest known printed version in the 1780 children's book, Mirth Without Mischief. It seems similar to the much older verse.
    What are they that are but one? The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 
    We have one God alone x
    In heaven above sits on His throne. 
    What are they which are but two? 2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments 
    Two testaments, the old and new, =
    We do acknowledge to be true. 
    What are they which are but three? 3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues 
    Three persons in the Trinity x
    Which make one God in unity. 
    What are they which are but four 4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists 
    Four sweet Evangelists there are, =
    Christ's birth, life, death which do declare. 
    What are they which are but five? 5 Golden Rings = The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace. 
    Five senses, like five kings, maintain x
    In every man a several reign. 
    What are they which are but six? 6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation 
    Six days to labor is not wrong, =
    For God himself did work so long.
    What are they which are but seven? 7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments 
    Seven liberal arts hath God sent down x
    With divine skill man's soul to crown. 
    What are they which are but eight? 8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes 
    Eight Beatitudes are there given =
    Use them right and go to heaven. 
    What are they which are but nine? 9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit 
    Nine Muses, like the heaven's nine spheres, x
    With sacred tunes entice our ears. 
    What are they which are but ten? 10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments 
    Ten statutes God to Moses gave =
    Which, kept or broke, do spill or save. 
    What are they which are but eleven? 11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles 
    Eleven thousand virgins did partake x
    And suffered death for Jesus' sake. 
    What are they which are but twelve? 12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed
    Twelve are attending on God's son; x
    Twelve make our creed. The Dial's done.


    After looking at a side-by-side comparison of "A New Dial" and "The Twelve Days of Christmas," I see some similarities but still have a lot of questions. Let's just say that Christians at some point in history for whatever motive simply wanted to have a verse to talk or sing about the Bible. And let's just say that the structure of call and response with twelve items was popular enough to be passed along orally for years and years. We still don't know:

    • When was the descriptive interpretation of The Twelve Days of Christmas written (i.e., 10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments)? Was the description really a contemporary sub-text to the lyric? Or was it written much later? If later, as I suspect, then idea that the song was a shadow catechism collapses.
    • If A New Dial is truly the predecessor of The Twelve Days of Christmas, why do the "stories" differ in detail over 50% of the time? 
    • Even if we accept the premise that a shadow catechism dating from before the Edict of Milan morphed from A New Dial to The Twelve Days of Christmas, and further accept that 10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments, we still have no explanation--no clue whatsoever--for Lords A-leaping. Why Lords A-leaping? Why not nice sweaters? We simply do not know.  
    Let's chalk it up to creative license!

    Speaking of gift ideas that seem strange to us today, did you ever wonder why the magi gave Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh? These valuable items were standard gifts to honor a king or deity in the ancient world: gold as a precious metal, frankincense as perfume or incense, and myrrh as anointing oil. Read more HERE

    This brings us to the end of our four-part exploration into the First Day of Christmas. I hope you have enjoyed this series. 

    Recapping:
    • December 26 is the First Day of Christmas. The Twelve Days of Christmas conclude on Epiphany.  
    • The "Official" Christmas Season for shopping and decorating purposes begins on Saint Nicholas Day and ends on Epiphany. I propose the term Christmastide, be modified to include the period of Advent, Christmas Day, and the Liturgical Christmas Season 
    • The total number of gifts given by the singer's true love is 364--enough gifts for one per day from the first day of Christmas on December 26th to the following Christmas Eve.  
    • The gifts have no hidden meaning relating to the catechism and rumors to that effect are unsubstantiated. The gifts seem random but they are no more bizarre than the original gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 
    I hope that you will remember the main ideas from these four posts when Christmas comes around again. When will you start thinking about Christmas? When will those thought be put into action? How will you build anticipation for the day of Jesus' birth? How will you celebrate the occasion? How will you taper off from that high point and carry the lessons forward, sharing them with others?