In the secular world, around us, the “Christmas season” invariably begins after Thanksgiving. In some stores we see the Christmas aisles being assembled even before Thanksgiving has arrived. Decorations ago up, town squares are decorated, and everyone anticipates December 25. Once the date arrives and the packages are exchanged, abruptly, Christmas is over.
This is not how Christmas has always been celebrated. For Catholics the season of Advent begins a period of anticipation for the coming of the Messiah. We have four weeks of anticipation that reaches its conclusion with the celebration of the Nativity…..or does it? Christmas Day on reality ushers in a celebration of twelve days that ends on the feast of the Epiphany.
These twelve days also play a significant role in church history. Catholics in England between the years 1558 and 1829 were prevented from any practice of the Catholic faith by law. This applied to both private AND public displays of their faith. To be Catholic in England during those years was a risky proposition as it was illegal to be a Catholic. A common punishment for violators was to be imprisoned, hung, or even drawn and quartered.
In response to this, the popular song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was written was written to serve as a Catechism in song form for parents to teach their children tenants of the faith. Over time this song has faded in its significance as a teaching aid for the faith and instead become like another Christmas song that carolers sing during the season.
On the surface, The Twelve Days of Christmas is a beloved and popular Christmas carol. Underlying that are hidden meanings for each of the gifts being presented. The “true love” mentioned throughout the song does not refer to an earthly suitor but rather, to God Himself. The “me” who is the recipient of the gifts refers to every baptized person. The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ.
The two turtle doves are representations of the Old and New Testaments.
The three French hens stand for Faith, Hope, and Love; the Theological Virtues.
The four calling birds are the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
The five golden rings represent the first five books of the Old Testament, known as the Pentateuch, which describe man’s fall into sin and the how God was with them throughout their struggle until He sent the Savior.
The six geese a-laying stand for the six days of creation.
Seven swans a-swimming represent the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit—–Prophesy, Serving, Teaching, Exhortation, Contribution, Leadership, and Mercy.
The eight maids a-milking are the eight beatitudes.
Nine ladies dancing are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
The ten lords a-leaping represent the Ten Commandments.
The eleven pipers piping stand for the eleven faithful Apostles.
The twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of doctrine in The Apostles’ Creed.
As you can see in a rather ingenious way the Catholic faithful in persecuted England cleverly created a way to spread the faith and keep it alive for some 300 years.