Popular Christmas song has a secret meaning.
Christmas Eve… it’s finally here. For many people it’s an opportunity to put your feet up, enjoy a glass of egg nog, a cup of hot chocolate or tea, or a glass of wine. After so much hustle and bustle getting ready, you can almost hear the collective sigh of relief at finally being able to relax.
For those of us gathered this night to worship, it’s an opportunity to be reminded that at the heart of all the celebration is God’s astounding gift of love, coming among us in human flesh to embrace us, care for us, touch us in a way we can truly experience and comprehend.
As “church people,” we are prone to spend much of the Advent season reflecting on how commercialized Christmas has become. Actually, human civilizations in the northern hemisphere have been holding celebrations at this time of year long before Christians began celebrating Jesus’ birth.
Christmas blends traditions
The winter solstice on December 21, when the hours of sunlight begin to increase, is an ancient focus of human celebrations. It was in the year 336 that the first recorded celebration of Christmas occurred. A few years later, Pope Julius I made Dec. 25 the official date of Christmas.
In many ways, Christians usurped a pagan holiday season. Some church historians think this was deliberately done to keep the faithful from being drawn into the decadent, worldly celebrations. So the reality is that it is the church that is attempting to transform a human festival into a sacred celebration.
Gift-giving evolved out of several streams of tradition. Gifts were given as part of pagan rituals around the winter solstice, and were adopted by Christians as reminders of the gifts given by the magi to the infant Jesus.
In addition, St. Nicholas, a 4th century bishop who was known for his generosity and care for the poor, is commemorated on Dec. 6. Giving gifts to the poor to honor him blended into the Christmas celebration and has evolved over the centuries.
Over the years, Christians have borrowed generously from the culture around us in ways that have caused our celebrations of Christmas to reflect family traditions and ethnic ones as well.
One interesting development in our Christmas celebrations in the United States revolves around the popular English carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Some legends say the song was written as a secret way of teaching the catechism during a period of religious oppression. Others say the catechism was fit into the song as a way to help children remember it.
12 Days of Catechism
No matter which explanation is correct, it’s fun to see how it all fits together.
- On the 1st day of Christmas my true love sent to me… A Partridge in a Pear Tree. The partridge is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge, known to feign injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings. This image brings to mind the expression of Christ’s sadness over the fate of Jerusalem: “Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered you under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but you would not have it so . . . .” (Luke 13:34)
- On the 2nd day of Christmas my true love sent to me… Two Turtle Doves. The Old and New Testaments, which together bear witness to God’s self-revelation in history and the creation of a people to tell the Story of God to the world.
- On the 3rd day of Christmas my true love sent to me… Three French Hens. The Three Theological Virtues: 1) Faith, 2) Hope, and 3) Love (1 Corinthians 13:13)
- On the 4th day of Christmas my true love sent to me… Four Calling Birds. The Four Gospels: 1) Matthew, 2) Mark, 3) Luke, and 4) John, which proclaim the Good News of God’s reconciliation of the world to Himself in Jesus Christ.
- On the 5th day of Christmas my true love sent to me… Five Gold Rings. The first Five Books of the Old Testament, known as the Torah or the Pentateuch: 1) Genesis, 2) Exodus, 3) Leviticus, 4) Numbers, and 5) Deuteronomy, which gives the history of humanity’s sinful failure and God’s response of grace in the creation of a people to be a light to the world.
Creation, holy gifts, beatitudes
- On the 6th day of Christmas my true love sent to me… Six Geese A-laying. The six days of creation that confesses God as Creator and Sustainer of the world (Genesis 1).
- On the 7th day of Christmas my true love sent to me… Seven Swans A-swimming. The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: 1) prophecy, 2) ministry, 3) teaching, 4) exhortation, 5) giving, 6) leading, and 7) compassion (Romans 12:6-8; cf. 1 Corinthians 12:8-11)
- On the 8th day of Christmas my true love sent to me… Eight Maids A-milking. The eight Beatitudes: 1) Blessed are the poor in spirit, 2) those who mourn, 3) the meek, 4) those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, 5) the merciful, 6) the pure in heart, 7) the peacemakers, 8) those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. (Matthew 5:3-10)
- On the 9th day of Christmas my true love sent to me… Nine Ladies Dancing. The nine Fruit of the Holy Spirit: 1) love, 2) joy, 3) peace, 4) patience, 5) kindness, 6) generosity, 7) faithfulness, 8) gentleness, and 9) self-control. (Galatians 5:22)
- On the 10th day of Christmas my true love sent to me… Ten Lords A-leaping. The ten commandments: 1) You shall have no other gods before me; 2) Do not make an idol; 3) Do not take God’s name in vain; 4) Remember the Sabbath Day; 5) Honor your father and mother; 6) Do not murder; 7) Do not commit adultery; 8) Do not steal; 9) Do not bear false witness; 10) Do not covet. (Exodus 20:1-17)
- On the 11th day of Christmas my true love sent to me…Eleven Pipers Piping
The eleven Faithful Apostles: 1) Simon Peter, 2) Andrew, 3) James, 4) John, 5) Philip, 6) Bartholomew, 7) Matthew, 8) Thomas, 9) James bar Alphaeus, 10) Simon the Zealot, 11) Judas bar James. (Luke 6:14-16). The list does not include the twelfth disciple, Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus to the religious leaders and the Romans.
- On the 12th day of Christmas my true love sent to me…Twelve Drummers Drumming
The Twelve points of doctrine in the 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. He descended into hell [the grave]. 5) On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. 6) He will come again to judge the living and the dead. 7) I believe in the Holy Spirit, 8) the holy catholic Church, 9) the communion of saints, 10) the forgiveness of sins, 11) the resurrection of the body, 12) and life everlasting.
God in the ordinary things
I wonder sometimes if we are not so intent on finding ways to make the world see Christmas through our eyes that we miss seeing the ways that Emmanuel-God with us- shows up in the midst of ordinary things of this world, such as finding a catechism in a traditional Christmas song. When Jesus was born, the world did not take notice, and no elaborate preparations were made. In fact, for the parents of our Lord, there was not even a room in the inn.
But God came anyway, making a temporary home in the humblest of places; his birth not announced in palaces or mansions, but out in the fields, to shepherds who were at the lowest rung of human society. There were no parties or festive celebrations, and no worship rituals held by the religious faithful; only the awe and wonder of 3 foreigners who followed the sign of a bright star that introduced them to God come into the world as a helpless newborn infant.
What we do – or do not do – at Christmas does not change the fact that God is in our midst. But what we do – or do not do – at Christmas may open us to seeing the ways God already exists among us. It may help others to recognize that God indeed lives among us.
The “true love” of the song, the giver of gifts, is the God who created us. May the gift of God’s presence be a gift you are able to receive this Christmas night. May it be a gift you are able to share.
Have a blessed Christmas!