I was listening to a modern version of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ the other day – or to be more exact, I was blasted with it while trying to go to the toilet. The restaurant favoured some schmaltzy lyrics I didn’t recognise and lines I can’t now recall. But I remember thinking a senseless song isn’t made more meaningful because the words have been changed; tradition has its own value and should be left alone.
Then – and only then – I discovered there is a subversive meaning to the list of presents my ‘true love’ is meant to bring me. As a mnemonic device used by Roman Catholics to teach the catechism during three centuries of persecution, it is all about religion.
When we sing, “On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree”, we’re actually singing, “on the first day of Christmas God brought me, a baptised Catholic, Jesus Christ”. Why? Because the partridge is an image of sacrifice, protecting its young to the death.
The other gifts are equally cryptic:
The two turtle doves are the Old and New Testaments.
The three French hens represent the three great virtues: Faith, Hope and Charity.
The four calling birds are the Four Gospels,
And the five golden rings are the five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch.
The six laying geese are the six days of creation.
The seven swans are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
The eight maids a-milking are the eight Beatitudes.
The nine ladies dancing are the nine choirs of angels.
The ten leaping lords are the Ten Commandments.
The eleven pipers piping are the eleven faithful apostles,
And the twelve drummers are the twelve statements of faith in the Apostles’ Creed.
This interpretation is controversial, of course. Many Christmas traditions borrow from our pre-Christian heritage and it’s possible the song has pagan connotations long since lost to us. It is also possible that children really were taught religious truths through an innocuous song.
In these days of growing religious intolerance the story of the song might smack of conspiracy theories: if a child’s song can be a subversive message than what and who can we trust. May be the newspapers are full of hidden messages to underground terrorist networks. If this makes you laugh, then believe me some people truly believe this is going on, looking over their shoulders at any woman in a hijab.
For others, the song’s history will serve as a warning: when people live in fear, they go underground and once they’re speaking in code, we’ve lost them.
The solution is to practice inclusivism. It doesn’t matter if those who we seek to include reject us; Christian ethics were never meant to be ethics of reciprocity. We do what is right because it is right, not because it benefits us.
In the days when the song was created, there was real violence and real fear; people were persecuted for their faith. Today, we live in anxious times and I’m not suggesting a fluffy Christmas-happy approach to the genuine problems we’re facing.
But if the season of Advent and Christmas can teach us anything, it is hope. The hatred that once existed between Catholics and Protestants is over. One day – God willing – the hatred between the faiths will be over too.