Joyous Epiphany!

Happy Epiphany (12th day of Christmas)!

Though I suspect few families do this, we observe the 12 Days of Christmas and Epiphany in our house. With young children, we do so by singing the well-know “12 Days of Christmas” song. The song seems like nonsense, of course. What kind of a gift is a partridge in a pear tree, much less piping pipers and other such things? I’ve read that actually buying all of these gifts would run about $25,000.
Legend suggests that it was written as a coded catechism for Catholics who could not freely worship in England in the 16th century (it was a crime to be Catholic then, vestiges of which remain with the difficult of being Catholic and prime minister). I don’t know if this is true, but it seems as plausible a story as any other. If the song was simply pagan, it seems like nonsense. There is considerable debate about this among the scarce few who care about really sorting out such things.
On the Christian version, it is thought that each gift is a hidden catechesis about a doctrine of faith.
Partridge in a pear tree: Partridges apparently sacrifice themselves, or at least feign injury, in order to protect their young. The tree, then, would be the cross.
2 Turtle Doves: the Old and New Testament
3 French Hens: The three theological virtues – faith, hope and love.
4 Calling Birds: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (the 4 Gospels).
5 Golden Rings: The Pentateuch, the first five books of the OT.
6 Geese-a-Laying: Represents the six days of creation.
7 Swans-a-Swimming: the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (wisdom, understanding, prudence, courage, knowledge, reverence, fear of the Lord) or, alternately, the seven sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion, Confession, Marriage, Holy Order, Anointing of the Sick).
8 Maids-a-Milking: The eight Beatitudes (blessed are the poor, meek, mourners, hungry for justice, merciful, pure of heart, peacemakers, those that suffer for the sake of justice).
9 Ladies Dancing: The nine fruits of the Holy Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control). (sometimes people list 12 gifts .. from Gal 5:22-23).
10 Lords-a-Leaping: The ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping: the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming: the twelve doctrinal points in the Apostle’s Creed.

Anyway, we sing each verse each night and talk to our children about what it represents. I am one who thinks we get Christmas turned all around. Many start to celebrate Christmas right after Thanksgiving, and then you get no celebration time after the climax at Christmas. Instead, Advent is meant to be a time of preparation and Christmas and the “Christmastide” a time of great celebration. The celebration typically ends either at Epiphany (12th day of Christmas) or the Sunday after, which commemorates the baptism of Christ. Think of a wedding. You don’t celebrate it before it is done, but after. And after you have a big party, and then a special time of joyous celebration (a honeymoon) after the main party is finished.

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About Kleiner

Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.
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