The Block Island Times

Christmas Blessings

Dec 25, 2013

The meaning behind the Twelve Days

At one time I was the chaplain at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, California. I would receive calls in December asking me for copies of the chapel service I gave about the “Twelve Days of Christmas” song.

“Now how does that go again,” the calls would begin. Calls asking for copies of former chapels are not that common in a Chaplain’s life, or at least in mine, so I took note that this seemed to touch some kind of unusual sensitivity.

Whether “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a code song or a teaching song is and has been questioned. Other code songs, notably some African American spirituals, are also being revisited with a critical eye. Such music from oral traditions tended not to have much documentation. So the lack of written proof is perhaps not all that significant.

It seems to me that over the generations we try to find strategies to implement our desires for our children to learn our spiritual heritage. For this, I think this version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” still works as a Christian teaching song to give meaning to a lively Christmas song that probably was accompanied by alcoholic Christmas cheer. The teachings would not have been all that controversial to Anglicans, so the idea that the song contains Roman Catholic teaching that was “too Roman” and too controversial for the religious persecution and tensions of the time is a little questionable but here goes:

One theory was that the meaning was to be found in the “days.” I will spare you the various theories people generated to support their ideas and just tell you the meaning is found in the “gifts.”

The twelve days were the days from Christmas day to Epiphany. The partridge stands for the ultimate gift of the baby Jesus given on Christmas day. After all, a mother partridge is willing to sacrifice her life by luring enemies away from her young in the nest. The pear tree suggests the cross – Jesus as the fruit of the tree or cross is one of many images for Jesus. The second gift, two turtledoves, stands for the Hebrew (Old) and Greek (New) Testaments of the Bible.

In the 16th century, three French hens were something only the very wealthy would ever serve. It would truly be a meal fit for a king, to feast upon three such precious birds at dinner. When the children sang about the three French hens, they were supposed to think about gold, frankincense and myrrh. Others said it was a reminder of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Can you guess who the four calling birds would be? How about the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who sang out the story of Jesus? The five rings? The Law of Moses or the first five books of the Hebrew bible. Six geese a-laying suggests new life and the catechism message for children that God created the world in six days. The seven swans a-swimming has a variety of meanings. Paul writes, for example, in Romans 12:6-8 about the seven gifts of the Spirit. The image of swans, author Ace Collins suggests in Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas (p. 173), is that if you walk with God, the gifts of the Spirit, you are able to animate your life in ways that show you to be as graceful as a swan on water. “Eight maids-a-milking” calls to mind the beatitudes of Matthew chapter 5. The job of milking a cow in a barn was a low-caste job in the 16th century, and so it is meant to remind us that Jesus loves the pure in heart, the poor, those who mourn, and the hungry. The dance of the nine ladies is about the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, goodness, and the rest of the virtues. The ten lords a-leaping is about the Ten Commandments. The loss of Judas, the fallen disciple, resulted in eleven members of Jesus’ inner circle instead of the original twelve pipers. So we get eleven pipers piping. Finally the twelve drummers drumming contained the twelve elements of the Apostles’ Creed. The creeds are historical summations of our foundational beliefs as Christians.

It is a lively song and for most it remains just that. Knowing the potential code is value added for those of us who love the story it tells. God works in mysterious ways, in this case an entertaining one.

Happy Advent and Merry Christmas

The Rev. Eileen Lindeman, Vicar

St. Ann’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church


Being at home, body and soul

Pope Francis is a top attention-getter worldwide. It does not seem because of his deep, theological disputations; or his miracles; or his ability to hit a high C. His popularity seems to come from his comfort in his own skin. Imagine a Pope who is at home in his own body and soul. He does not need to impress the world with complex, compound sentences. A direct, “who am I to judge?” tells friend and foe his approach to delicate situations. “Those who say they are Christian but do not live like one is lying to themselves and to the world,” gets the entire message across in simple, clear language. “Those who lead the sheep must smell like the sheep,” describes the mode and modality of ministry in blunt, but easily understood, words. Of course, just a reflective pause reveals that Francis talks and acts in biblical language and prophetic gestures. Old, but it is still very attractive to observe a person comfortable in his own skin!

Merry Christmas! We have a God who is comfortable in His own skin, created for Him in the womb of the very human Virgin Mary. He is a Jesus who so loved the human race that he enclosed Himself in its skin and became one with it. He spoke the language of the common people: “Judge not and you shall not be judged.” “Forgive and you shall be forgiven.” “Give and it shall be given back to you.” “It is not the one who says Lord, Lord who will enter the Kingdom of heaven. But they who do the will of my Father will inherit the Kingdom.”

“I am the good shepherd” who goes out of his way to find the lost sheep. “Mine know me and I know mine” — because we smell alike. How attractive it is to have a God and Savior who is comfortable in His own skin, which is our skin. The God who is not to be feared, but rather the watchful, searching One to whom we come home.

Merry Christmas indeed! And a New Year that builds on it!

Rev Joseph Protano, Pastor

St. Andrew Catholic Church

Jesus as the friend of sinners and the poor

2013 was the year Baptists got excited about a Pope. The reason is that beyond any of the particulars that divide us, we love Jesus. We believe that we are called to live like Jesus. Here is a leader — like the original Francis of Assisi — who lives out the radical call of Jesus.

Pope Francis was named Time’s Person of the Year, just ahead of Edward Snowden. One may be a lawbreaker, but they have this in common: they both leaked secrets of great importance. Pope Francis unveiled a secret hidden behinds layers of tradition and pomp: that Jesus was and is a friend of sinners and of the poor.

There are many things the Pope and I would disagree about, but on this we agree: Jesus welcomed sinners and those labeled by society as sinners. Jesus announced the arrival of God’s reign, a new regime in which the poor would be blessed, where peace and justice would be realized. Jesus called people to follow him, to be freed of slavery to money and to become like him in his love of God and neighbor.

Pope Francis has pointed out a truth, which should be obvious to all Christians — that unfettered capitalism works at cross purposes with the kingdom of God. When workers are treated as commodities, the invisible hand of the market does not protect them. It takes human conscience and a sense of justice to protect workers and the poor.

Surely in this season when we remember the downward mobility of Christ who “though he was rich, yet for our sakes became poor,” we can agree that the Christmas story is at odds with the increasing gap between the rich and the poor. On television we see Santa delighting to give rich people a Mercedes or Lexus or diamonds. It’s hard to imagine Jesus being happy in that role. It’s hard not to think that Jesus would remind us that his birth was among the poor on purpose, and that the way we see him in 2013 is in the faces of those in need.

Rev. Steve Hollaway

Harbor Church


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