Sunday, 24 December 2006

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Another carol with (possible) recusant origins is The Twelve Days of Christmas.

Some people claim that the carol originated in the English Catholic Community. According to this theory, the persecuted Catholics had to find ways of expressing their faith through codes and signs. The seemingly innocent Twelve Days of Christmas is thus, in reality, a coded mini-catechism of the Catholic Faith. Thus:

My True Love = the Father/Jesus Christ
Partridge in a Pear Tree = Jesus Christ
Two Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
Three French Hens = the Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope and Charity) or the Holy Trinity
Four Calling Birds = the Four Evangelists
Five Golden Rings = the Pentateuch
Six Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
Seven Swans A-swimming = the seven sacraments/ the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit
Eight Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
Nine Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit [there are twelve fruits but it is proposed that forbearance is combined with patience, goodness with kindness and self-control with chastity, thus making nine]
Ten Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
Eleven Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
Twelve Drummers Drumming = the twelve articles of the Apostles' Creed

It's a beautiful theory but there is no hard evidence that the song has recusant origins - indeed, with the exception of the seven sacraments, all these truths are accepted by the Church of England and would not, therefore, need to be 'coded'. Moreover, the meanings are obscure - you would expect that the coded language in a catechetical song would have at least some relevance to the thing signified - but how, for example, do 'nine ladies dancing' remind somebody of the Beatitudes?! At the end of the day, we just don't know for sure the origins of the carol.

Mgr Mark Langham left a comment on Adeste Fideles, which inspired this post. He says: 'I was once told that the song of the "Twelve Days of Christmas" is based on Latin texts, as heard by a non-literate congregation. Thus, "A Partridge in a Pear Tree" was originally "Apparuit in Partibus". I have found no corroboration of this or, indeed, any hint at what the other 'days' might represent. Any clues?" I've never heard of this theory before - can any readers help or suggest Latin texts that might have been corrupted into other lines of the carol?

The familiar version of the Twelve Days of Christmas was first published in a childrens book called Mirth Without Mischief in 1780. Based on an earlier French version, it was designed to be a memory and forfeit game to amuse the children during Christmastide.

Even if the recusant background behind the Twelve Days of Christmas is not historically accurate, the symbolism is still a helpful way of catechising children in the truths of the Faith in the form of a memory game. So, whatever the real origins of the carol, we shouldn't simply write it off as a 'nonsensical' secular song. After all, so many of our Christmas customs have pagan or secular origins that were later Christianized for the glory of God!

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Blogger Ttony said...

I think the clue to the Recusant origin of the hymn comes from the fact that it was "traditional" in Lancashire and North Yorkshire, the two places where the Faith was maintained.

8:08 pm  

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