This first column of 2023 finds us still in the midst of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Besides counting off time between Christmas and the Epiphany of the Lord (also known as Little Christmas), the Twelve Days of Christmas is for many of us a seemingly fun Christmas carol used in various settings to elicit audience participation. Has anyone else been designated to be a partridge in a pear tree? I must admit it does take work and creativity to be part of this song!

Interestingly enough, to be part of the song is a theme found in the Psalms of the Christmas season. It starts literally with the Vigil Mass of Christmas where in the context of Psalm 89, the Church sings out, “Forever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.” At the Christmas Mass during the Night, Psalm 96 in its first verse announces, “Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all you lands. Sing to the Lord; bless his name.” And on Christmas Day, Psalm 98 tells us to “sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done wondrous deeds …” In the eight days following Christmas, known as its Octave, through these Psalms, the Church continues to enter the new song inaugurated by the Incarnation — the Enfleshment — of our God.

Believe it or not, this is not just the liturgical meaning of the Twelve Days of Christmas (that is, the Christmas season), but is also the real purpose of what seems to be an innocent and fun Christmas song. Tradition has it that the “Twelve Days of Christmas” was written in 16th century England where anything Catholic was forbidden and punishable by imprisonment or death. In a desperate attempt to hand on the tenets of the faith to the next generation, two Jesuits of the day came up with a code to teach an outline of the faith.

So, let’s take a closer look beginning with the refrain, “My true love gave to me …” which is none other than a reminder of the God who comes to us even when it seems we are at the fringe of society or treated as a foreigner. It is epitomized in the ultimate gift of the partridge in the pear tree that represents the Savior — Christ, our King — reigning from the cross and available to all! In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge that feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings, recalling 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 …” (Lk 13:34). Reminding struggling believers, as well, that Christ has conquered sin and death on the tree of the cross!

Our catechism lesson continues with the two turtledoves signifying the Old and New Testaments of the Bible 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.

The three French hens have a dual meaning. They have been used to signify the gift of the Magi — gold, frankincense and myrrh — symbolizing as St. Irenaeus of Lyon says, “the mystery of the Incarnate Word (God who has become man): gold, a symbol of royalty, represents his kingship; frankincense, used in worship, points to his divinity; and myrrh represents his humanity, particularly in his passion and death” (Against Heresies, 3, 9, 2). St. Gregory the Great in his Homilies on the Gospels spoke also of these gifts as three items which “represent gifts that we are to present to God in our daily lives.” Gold is Christ’s wisdom, which is to shine in our lives; frankincense is the prayer and adoration we are to give him; and myrrh is our daily self-sacrifice to the Lord. This gift has also been used to speak of the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love.

The four calling birds represent the four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — which sing out the Good News of God’s reconciliation of the world to Himself in Jesus Christ. While the five golden rings denote the first five books of the Old Testament, known as the Torah or the Pentateuch — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and 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.

The six geese a-laying again have a dual purpose representing both the Six Days of Creation in the Book of Genesis as well as the Six Precepts of the Church. The Precepts describe the minimum effort that as Catholics we must make in prayer and in living a moral life. Moreover, all are called to move beyond the minimum by growing in love of God and love of neighbor. The Precepts are as follows: 1) Attendance at Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation; 2) Confession of serious sin at least once a year; 3) Reception of Holy Communion at least once a year during the Easter season; 4) Observance of the days of fast and abstinence; and 5) Providing for the needs of the Church.

The seven swans a-swimming are more easily recognizable as the Seven Sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist, Penance, Marriage, Holy Orders and Anointing of the Sick. But they have also been used to denote the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude (Courage), Knowledge, Fear of the Lord (Reverence) and Piety.

The eight maids a-milking signify 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).

The nine ladies dancing are used to represent the nine choirs of angels: 1) Seraphim; 2) Cherubim; 3) Thrones; 4) Dominions; 5) Virtues; 6) Powers; 7) Principalities; 8) Archangels; and 9) Angels. They denote also the Fruits of the Holy Spirit: 1) love, 2) joy, 3) peace, 4) patience, 5) kindness, 6) generosity, 7) faithfulness, 8) gentleness, and 9) self-control (Gal 5:22-23).

The ten lords a-leaping are naturally 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 (Ex 20:1-17).

The eleven pipers piping draw our attention to eleven faithful apostles who pipe the faith in an unbroken tradition: Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James, son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, Jude.

And finally, the twelve drummers drumming are the twelve beliefs outlined 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.

Imagine if we took the outline of these twelve days and expanded them into the twelve coming months of this new year 2023. Is it exciting how they could help us learn and put into practice the new song Jesus Christ came to teach us to sing? Continued Christmas Blessings on you and your loved ones, and my prayers and best wishes for a prosperous and blessed New Year in growing in faith and discipleship!

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