Twelve - Monday Musing, December 14, 2020
Twelve. It is the fourteenth of the month, but I have been thinking about the number twelve. Although the number twelve is said to be a representation of authority and perfection, that’s not why twelve has been on my mind. And not because twelve can also represent the church and faith in general, or that it can be used as a symbol of divine rule, or the symbol of the perfect government of God. No, I have been thinking about the number twelve since I heard the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” on the radio the other day.
Who doesn’t enjoy hearing Christmas music this time of year? But “The Twelve Days of Christmas” before Christmas!? We are in the season of Advent, not Christmas! The Twelve Days of Christmas is frequently misunderstood in the church (but it does make a delightful holiday tune). Contrary to popular belief, these are not the twelve days before Christmas, but rather the twelve days from Christmas, until the beginning of Epiphany, which is January 6 (the twelve days count from December 25 until January 5).
The origin of the Twelve Days has an interesting history. Differences in its beginnings have to do with the calendar, church traditions, and cultural distinctions. In the Western church, Epiphany is traditionally celebrated as the time the three Wise Men (or Magi) arrive and present gifts to the baby Jesus (Matt 2:1-12). The Eastern Orthodox Church uses a different religious calendar; they celebrate Christmas on January 7 and observe Epiphany (or Theophany) on January 19.
The popular song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is widely known as a secular, playful song for children. Some believe that the song contains hidden Christian instruction dating to the 16th century (a sneaky way to teach kids!). While this sounds like the making of a Dan Brown Da Vinci Code thriller, evidence of such hidden meanings in the song is scant, proving or disproving this theory.
Dennis Bratcher breaks down the hidden lessons in the song this way:
On the ___ day of Christmas my true love gave to me…
1st – (partridge in a pear tree) = Jesus Christ;
2nd – (turtle doves) = the Old and New Testaments;
3rd – (French hens) = the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love;
4th – (calling birds) = the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John;
5th – (golden rings) = the first five books of the Old Testament, known as the Torah;
6th – (geese a-laying) = the six days of creation;
7th – (swans a-swimming) = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion;
8th – (maids a-milking) = the eight Beatitudes;
9th – (ladies dancing) = the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control;
10th – (Lords a-leaping) = the Ten Commandments;
11th – (pipers piping) = the eleven faithful Apostles (Judas omitted);
12th – (drummers drumming) = the twelve points of doctrine in The Apostles’ Creed.
It might be easier to remember the lyrics to the popular song than the hidden Christian teachings. But when you hear the lyrics of what you thought was a secular, playful song for children, you can now be reminded of the ways in which the grace of God once again is working to transform our lives and our world. After all, isn’t that the meaning of Christmas? We should celebrate that for more than just twelve days, don’t you think?