The Twelve Days of Christmas
On the twelve day of Christmas my true love gave to me,
12 drummers drumming
11 pipers piping
10 lords a’leaping
9 ladies dancing
8 maids a’milking
7 swans a’swimming
6 geese a’laying
5 golden rings
4 calling birds
3 french hens
2 turtle doves
and a partridge in a pear tree
A very popular Christmas song indeed. My guess is you are probably fairly tired of it by now and ready to get back to regular music, putting these fun songs away for another year. But before we do, I’d like us to explore this song a little today.
Any teacher will tell you that in order to get their students to remember something, it helps to use various methods, one of which is to put the subject to music. There is a strong theory that this song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,”was one of those teaching tools. There was a time in our Christian history when teaching and sharing Christian principles was illegal and could cause offenders to be put to death. However, the message of Christ’s love for all could not be contained even with such a strong threat. Those dedicated to teaching the next generation of believers found a special way to educate their students on some basic principles of the Christian faith – and they put them in a code imbedded in this song. As we work our way through we will pause and share in some music as well.
We will work our way backwards and begin with day 12. You may be aware that as we celebrate Christmas, Christmas day is considered day 1 of the 12 days of Christmas which end on Epiphany which is January 6. Many of us are like the rest of the world in that once 12/25 is over, Christmas is over and its time to move on. This song reminds us of the enduring celebration of the Christmas season, and the principles behind each of these hidden clues is an opportunity to renew our faith. “On the twelve day of Christmas my true love gave to me, twelve drummers drumming.” ‘My true love’is thought to be God throughout this tale, therefore God gave ‘me’, or all humankind, something important related to the number 12. Often folks think of the 12 disciples, however the song relate the 11 faithful disciples to the ‘eleven pipers piping.’The twelve drummers drumming represents the twelve points of the Apostle’s Creed. As I invite you to stand and recite the Apostle’s Creed with me, see if you can pick out the twelve points. [Creed]
The eleven pipers piping represent the eleven faithful disciples. According to the gospel of Luke, there were 2 Simons, 2 James, 2 Judas (we only count one in the eleven), Andrew, John, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, and Philip. It was noted that the disciples spread the word of Jesus far and wide as a piper readily shares his music; hence eleven pipers piping.
The ten lords a’leaping represent a very popular element concerning the number 10 – the ten commandments. These are outlined for us in Exodus 20:1-17. These three ‘days’help us to experience God’s faithfulness to God’s people. With that in mind, please join me in singing, “Forever.”
This next group of days depicted in our song have a lot of reference to the Holy Spirit. “Nine ladies dancing”represent the nine fruit of the Spirit which is: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23.) The fruit of the Spirit is different from the gifts of the Spirit, of which there are seven and these are noted as the ‘seven swans a’swimming.’ The seven gifts are prophesy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion according to Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12. These blessings of the Holy Spirit bookend ‘eight maids a’milking’- the eight Beattitudes.
Blessed are the poor in spirit
Blessed are those who mourn
Blessed are the meek
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
Blessed are the merciful
Blessed are the pure in heart
Blessed are the peacemakers
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’sake
When we think of the holy trinity, Father, Son, Spirit, we can see God as creator, Jesus as redeemer, and the Holy Spirit as sustainer of our faith. Life is often difficult but we cling to the hope of blessedness and the sustaining nature of the Holy Spirit in us. Let us join together in singing, “Holy Spirit, reign down.”
We are about halfway through our song as we reach the six geese a’laying -these represent the six days of creation. We are reminded of God’s power and might and ultimate care for creation. The five golden rings and the four calling birds are both a part of holy scripture. The five golden rings represent the first five books of the Bible – often referred to as the Pentateuch or the Torah. These books reveal God’s grace to a chosen people who often fall short of God’s glory, giving way to sin. Yet God’s faithfulness remains steadfast; hence we have five golden rings. The four calling birds represent the four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This continuation of God’s love for humanity is revealed in its fullest with the stories of God’s greatest gift in the for of God’s son Jesus. So as we consider the greatness of God, let us sing together, “God of Wonders.”
Three french hens – these first 3 days of Christmas explore a common theme of love. While the three french hens are often assumed to represent the holy trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), the official understanding is they represent the three theological virtues as noted in the love chapter – 1 Corinthians 13. These virtues are faith, hope, and love. Two turtle doves – this is an interesting one. Turtle doves were considered an acceptable sacrifice in the temple for those who could not afford a lamb. Mary and Joseph presented these after Jesus was born, so we can assume they were not wealthy but humble, living off meager means. But the official understanding of the two turtle doves is the Old and the New Testament – God’s incredible story of love for God’s people.
Finally we reach the partridge in a pear tree. This is said to represent Jesus the Christ for a couple of reasons. First, a mother partridge will often pretend to be injured when faced with predators, in order to lure them away from her young ones. In a similar way, Jesus provided the sacrifice on the cross for our sin. Second, we see the symbolism of a pear tree, also noting Christ was hung on a tree – a cross, so that all humankind could know the blessings of eternal life. As we pause to consider Jesus as our partridge in a pear tree, let us sing together, “Jesus Messiah.”
So there you have it, a very popular Christmas song that seems on the surface to be rather silly and filled with birds! But when you realize the significance of each of these items represented in the twelve days of Christmas, we can possibly begin to see God’s incredible love for all of us. Emmanuel – God with us. Amen.