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Christmas in Carolina!

"These Wonderful Things .. We'll Remember All Through Our Lives"

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Christmas is an ancient season and has spawned hundreds of fables and old tales, some not so factual, some purely mythical, all pretty good. Here's one more.

Everyone is familiar with the "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Not everyone knows the serious purpose for which many believe it was written. According to some, it is a good deal more than a bunch of clever phrasings and a catalog of unusual gift offerings. Its true purpose was to serve as an underground Catechism, schooling Catholic children in the truths of their religion in secret during the sixteenth century, when it was a crime to be a Catholic in England. Herewith, the tale.

The Twelve Days of Christmas" was written in England as one of the "catechism songs" to help young Catholics learn the tenets of their faith - a memory aid, when to be caught with anything in *writing* indicating adherence to the Catholic faith could not only get you imprisoned, it could get you hanged, or shortened by a head - or hanged, drawn and quartered …”

The song's 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. In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge which feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings, much in memory of the expression of Christ's sadness over the fate of Jerusalem: "Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered thee under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but thou wouldst not have it so..."

The other symbols mean the following:
  1. Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments
  2. French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
  3. Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
  4. Golden Rings = The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace
  5. Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
  6. Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
  7. Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
  8. Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
  9. Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
  10. Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
  11. Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed”
--Fr. Hal Stockert, Fishnet

A neat story even if it might not benefit from the added virtue of being true. According to a number of credible sources, it falls under the category of "urban myth."

The tale itself can be found on several religious websites including that of Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), the TV land home of Mother M. Angelica, the grandmotherly (83) Poor Clare nun who recites the Rosary on the Tube (among many other things).

The doubters can be found in numerous places, even some Christian websites. A most thorough debunking resides, not surprisingly, at www.snopes.com. Whenever anyone wants to wrench your heart with some incredible tale of human kindness or cruelty, Republican or Democrat, go first to Snopes. They’re agnostic. They don’t know what they believe; they just seem to have a knack for knowing when a fellow doesn't have his facts straight.

Snopes's most damaging point is that the beliefs putatively referenced in the carol are common to both the Anglican and Catholic faiths. They are essentially identical religions differing primarily in the allegiance of Catholics to the Pope. Henry VIII, readers will recall, had other plans. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were not necessarily kind to Catholics in England, but there would have been no reason for them to hide their beliefs in the tenants of faith the carol supposedly sings about. Everybody believed the same stuff.

The website of the Central Valley Christian School Visalia, CA, www.cvc.org/christmas/12days.htm has the following to say about the carol, and I have no idea how accurate they are, although this explanation turns up on numerous websites as well. Of course, as often happens on the web, they could all just simply be copying from one another. That's what happens in grammar school and, come to think of it, in life.

[A]ccording to A Celebration and History(ISBN 0-679-74038-4), by Leigh Grant, the written lyrics to "The Twelve Days of Christmas" first appeared in Mirth without Mischief in the early 1780s in England. Grant states that the tune to which these words are sung apparently dates back much further and came from France. Mirth without Mischief describes "The Twelve Days of Christmas" as a type of memory game played by children at that time. A leader recited the first verse, the next child recited the second verse, and so on until someone missed a verse and had to pay some kind of penalty in the game. There was no religious significance.

It should be noted, for the record, that a number of religious sites stick to their guns, summarily dismissing the summary dismissal of the story's historical accuracy. Well, Christmas is about faith, among other things.

Inspired by the artwork featured on the original 12 Days of Christmas Collection ornament series, this champagne bucket features 12 of the most endearing Waterford cut patterns along with the 12 renowned icons representing the most legendary tokens of affection from Waterford's newest collectible series. Item #136461 Price: $4,000.00. Ah, commerce: the real reason for the season. God smiles on those who are mindlessly rich. www.waterford.com/shop/product.asp?sku=4897&cat=All&terms=345

Wilson’s Almanac, a rambling and interesting personal website that originates, evidently, in Australia and can be found at www.wilsonsalmanac.com/book/dec26.html, offers a thought-provoking observation on this carol, one which opens up a whole different line of analysis:
It’s interesting to note that by the twelfth day of Christmas, the true love had cumulatively sent to the singer exactly 364 gifts, or one for each day of the year except Christmas Day. It has been suggested, by William H Riker, Lawrence College, Appleton, Wisconsin, USA (in Journal of American Folklore, LXXII (1959)) that the medieval author was exercising his numerological wit in this old rhyme. Whether a Christmas present was ever sent is not known.

Well, maybe it really doesn't have anything to do with religion; maybe Louis Carroll wrote it. Or my brother. He'd spot something like that.

A parody I first came across long ago popped up in my cybertravels while putting this piece together. The following is a little heavy-handed, but it's always amused me. Probably because it gets to the fundamental absurdity of the proposition the song is based on. If nothing so far has tickled your funny bone, maybe this will.

December 26
Dearest Bill:
I went to the door today and the postman delivered a partridge in a pear tree. What a wonderful thoughtful gift! I couldn't have been more surprised.
With deepest Love and Devotion,

December 27
Dearest Bill:
Today the postman brought your most wonderful gift. Just imagine - two turtle doves! I'm delighted at your very sweet gift. They are just adorable. I will have to get a cage for them.
With deepest Love,

December 28
Dearest Bill:
Oh! Your third gift arrived! You really went too far, I think. I don't deserve such generosity - three French hens. They are just lovely, but I must protest - you've been way too kind.

December 29
Dearest Bill:
Today the postman delivered four calling birds. Now, really, they're quite nice, but now I have 10 birds and nowhere to put any more....so please, no more birds!! But, thanks.

December 30
Dearest Bill:
What a surprise! Another present....and not a bird this time! Wow! Today the postman delivered five golden rings, one for each finger. You're just too extravagant, but I love it! Frankly, all those birds squawking were beginning to get on my nerves, but the rings are wonderful...and so quiet!!
All my love,

December 31
Dear Bill:
When I opened the door there were actually six geese a-laying on my front steps. So you're back to the birds again, huh? Those geese are huge! And it was bird poop that they were laying..complete with a large count of coloform bacteria. Where will I ever keep them? The neighbors are complaining. The police came by with a formal complaint, and I can't sleep through all the racket. I guess I have my own noise-makers for the new years eve celebration tonight.
Please stop. NO MORE BIRDS!!

January 1
Happy New Year...to some people. It hasn't been so happy with me. What's with you and those dumb birds? Seven swans a-swimming. What kind of practical joke is this? There's bird guano all over the house and they never stop squawking. I could not sleep all night and I'm a nervous wreck. You have gone too far, bird brain. STOP SENDING BIRDS. NO MORE BIRDS!! GOT IT?

January 2
I think I prefer the birds over this. What am I going to do with eight maids a-milking? It's not enough with all those birds and eight maids a-milking, but they had to bring their cows. Have you ever smelled a yard full of cow patties? Their piles are all over the lawn, and I can't move in my own house. Leave me alone. NO MORE OF YOUR "GIFTS".

January 3
Hey, Vacuum-for-a-brain:
What are you? Some kind of freak? Now there's nine ladies dancing...right in the smelly you-know-what and tracking it all over my house. The way they've been bickering with the milk maids, I hesitate to even call them ladies. You'll get yours, buddy.

January 4
You rotten piece of cow patty:
What's with the ten lords a-leaping? I have threatened to break their legs so that they can never leap again. All 23 of the birds are dead. They've been trampled to death by the leapers, the dancers, and the cows. At least, I don't have to worry about them any more. However, the cows are mooing all night having gotten diarrhea. My living room is a sewer! The City Commissioner has subpoenaed me to give cause why my house shouldn't be condemned.
I'm filing a complaint to the police about you!
One who means it.

January 5
Listen, brainless:
Now there's eleven pipers piping. And they never stop piping...except when they're chasing those maids or dancing girls. The cows are getting very upset and are sounding worse than the birds ever did. What am I going to do? There is a petition going around to evict me from the neighborhood. I hope you're satisfied, you rotten, vicious swine.
Your sworn enemy,

January 6
Dear Sir:
This will acknowledge your latest gift of twelve drummers drumming which you have seen fit to inflict on our client, Miss Sara Truelove. The damage, of course, was total. She was found beating her head against the wall to the beat of the twelve drums. If you should attempt to reach Miss Truelove at Happy Glen Sanitarium, the attendants have instructions to shoot you on sight. With this letter please find attached a warrant for your arrest.
Law Firm of Sue, Pillage, and Plunder

Joke courtesy of www.cvc.org/christmas/index.htm. I notice it's copyrighted, but this joke is older than I am, which should put it in the public domain. I think that's where I am now, too.

Fully half of the beliefs humanity, in its various forms, subscribes to are probably nonsense, the likely product of taking too literally a metaphoric explanation some well-meaning prophet was using to make a well-meaning, and maybe even valid, point.

"The Twelve Days of Christmas" emblemizes what a wonderfully complex season this really is. Christmas is about truths, not facts. And anyway, if people are dying to find religious significance in the words, who can blame them? They're hungry for something, and the religious explanation makes about as much sense as any other for this, truly, idiotically whacky song.

Fun to sing, though, this time of year.

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