December 25, 2012
The twelve days of Christmas
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

Down through the centuries, the Christmas narrative has been told and re-told, yet we never tire of it. Why not? First, because the story has no limit to its message of beauty, truth, and goodness. It is always inspirational. Second, each time we ourselves approach the story we have changed a little; we find something new in the gospel narrative, and there we find new graces to bolster our lives in Christ. This is why this mystery of the Nativity of the Lord has been the subject for artists of all ages.

Christmas Customs

Like Advent traditions, Christmas customs, such as the Christmas crib, should be explained to children: St. Francis of Assisi popularized the crèche scene on Christmas Eve in 1223.

Mistletoe was a sacred plant of the Druids and symbolized good luck and happiness. The holly branch symbolizes Mary’s heart filled with a flaming love for God.  

The origin of the Christmas tree combines two medieval religious symbols: the Paradise Tree and the Christmas Light. Christ as the Christmas light finds expression in a candle that is placed in the window to symbolize Christ the Light of the world.
The home of the poinsettia is in Central America. It resembles the star of Bethlehem. In Mexico, it is called the “Flower of the Night.” Laurel wreaths are a custom of ancient Rome and symbolize a friendly greeting, victory, and joy of a celebration. The Christmas pageant helps children to reenact the first Christmas and to pay homage to the Infant King.  
Origin of the Song “Twelve Days of Christmas”

We are all familiar with the song, “Twelve Days of Christmas.” The carol has two levels of meaning: the surface meaning plus a hidden meaning known only to Catholics of the time. Each element in the carol has a code word for a Catholic religious reality, which the children could remember:

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me a partridge in a pear tree. The partridge in a pear tree was Jesus Christ.

On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me two turtle doves. Two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments. The fun of the song is to repeat the previous number and its lyrics–all in one deep breath!

On the third of day of Christmas, my true love gave to me three French hens. “Three French hens stood for faith, hope and love.”

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me four calling birds.“The four calling birds were the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me five golden rings. “The five golden rings recalled the Torah or Law, the first five books of the Old Testament.

On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me six geese a-laying. The six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation.

On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me seven swans a-swimming. Seven swans a-swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge piety, and fear of the Lord.

On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me eight maids a-milking. The eight maids a-milking were the eight beatitudes.

On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me nine ladies dancing. Nine ladies dancing were the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me ten lords a-leaping. The ten lords a-leaping were the Ten Commandments.

On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me eleven pipers piping. The eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful disciples.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me twelve drummers drumming. The twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in The Apostles’ Creed.     
 So here is our Christmas history lesson to ponder for these next several Christmas days.

A happy and blessed Christmas to you and to your loved ones!

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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