One of the most entertaining carols to sing at Christmas is “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Who doesn’t love trying to recall all of the drummers, pipers, ladies dancing, and lords-a-leaping in the correct order? Heck, I can barely remember what verse I’m playing when I hazard to play it on the piano. Regardless of whether singing, playing, or listening, the song is sure to put a smile on your face.
One of the memories I associate with the song is The O’Kelley Caroling Party. For many years, my Daddy hosted a caroling party in our neighborhood. Mother was surprised Daddy took her seriously when she told him if he wanted to have a party, then he would have to invite all of the guests and plan it. He did! He generated a guest list and phoned each guest personally. He also collected paperback caroling songbooks. Mother, my sisters, and I prepared refreshments. When the day came, we gathered in our driveway, flashlights in hand, and trekked down the small mountain we lived on to go knock on doors. Unsuspecting neighbors cheerfully received our laudations of goodwill. We braved some bitterly cold nights as we sang of Christ’s birth and orient kings. We shivered and huddled moving from house to house until our toes and hands were numb. Knowing our freezing fingers would be rewarded with a warm cup of cocoa when we got back home made the chilling winds more tolerable. Homemade sugar cookies decorated with colored frosting added to the delight.
After several years of birthdays for my parents’ friends, the “small mountain” we lived on didn’t seem so small anymore! Rather than cancel the party, Daddy decided to bring the carols inside. We rearranged our living room and cranked up our home organ. I was honored to serve as the organist. Guests seemed relieved to stay inside where it was warm and not have to be concerned about twisting an ankle or buckling a knee. At first, it seemed odd to sing to ourselves but we quickly realized the value. Our caroling party soon became a rousing highlight of the season for many.
One of the songs Daddy chose was “The 12 Days of Christmas.” We paired off and were assigned a “day.” When our turn came, we stood and merrily rang out our token gift. Laughter sometimes drowned out the notes and words.
While laughter, music, and celebration are a common denominator for Christmas joy in our household, this is not the case for many around the globe. Persecution prohibits such frivolity. Can you imagine not being able to openly express the joy, praise, and wonder of Christ’s birthday? Sixteenth-century persecuted Christians in England couldn’t imagine it either so they found a way. Children were taught the lyrics of a song symbolizing the elements of the Christian faith. Borrowing from Helen Haidle’s book “The Real Twelve Days of Christmas,” I’d like to share what those crazy words really mean.
You must realize that the song does not include the words “God” or “Jesus.” The lilting carol portrays a generous benefactor who loved to give. The benefactor was called “my true love” but Christians easily recognized it as a reference to God.
So let’s revisit the gifts “my true love” gave: First Day – The partridge was a bird ready to die defending it’s young just as Jesus Christ was ready to die on the cross (pear tree) for his children (e.g. you and me). Second Day – Turtledoves were used as offerings for hundreds of years. Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, brought two turtle doves, one each, to provide an offering for Jesus as required by law. Third Day – French hens, a possession of the rich, symbolized the three gifts from the wise men (gold, frankincense, and myrrh). Fourth Day – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were four Gospel writers (four calling birds) that proclaimed the testimony of Jesus’ life and teachings calling people to faith. Fifth Day – The first five books of the Bible are known by the Jews as the Torah. They are worth more than gold, specifically five gold rings.
Sixth Day – Eggs symbolize new life. Six eggs remind us of the six days of creation when life was brought forth through God’s Word. Seventh Day – The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (prophesying, serving, teaching, encouraging, giving, leadership, and showing mercy) are represented by the seven swans that change from an ugly duckling into a beautiful, graceful bird much like how God’s children are transformed. Eighth Day – Eight milking maids represent the eight beatitudes found in Matthew 5:3-12. The Beatitudes nurture and strengthen us the same way milk nourishes a growing child. Ninth Day – Nine ladies dancing remind us of the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit that bring life-changing joy. Tenth Day – The Ten Commandments are symbolized by ten lords-a-leaping. Why lords? because they were men with authority to command obedience from the people. Eleventh Day – Eleven pipers, eleven apostles (following the betrayal of Judas). They “piped” a message of great joy to follow Jesus. Twelfth Day – Drummers beat a steady rhythm for marchers to follow. The Apostle’s Creed identifies twelve Christian beliefs to follow.
So there you have it. The real twelve days of Christmas. Bet you’ll never be able to sing it the same again. Consider this Christmas a blessing to worship the newborn King and to sing His glorious name without hiding behind hidden meanings and strange words. Merry Christmas! Thank you, my true love.