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The 12 Days, truth or myth?

Published December 18. 2010 09:00AM

By Bob urban

Since Thanksgiving I've been riding around in my car listening to a radio station that exclusively plays nothing but Christmas music from Thanksgiving until Christmas night. It's a nice respite to the music, news broadcasts and radio talk shows I usually listen to.

Of course, all the old favorites are played with the likes of Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante and Burl Ives bringing back the standards that have made the Christmas season special for so many years. Often I find myself singing along, or at least whistling the tune. It helps get me in the Christmas spirit.

No Christmas would be complete without the playing of "The 12 Days of Christmas", which I hear on an average of three times a day. But I never gave it much thought until I read a recent Associated Press news story that claimed, based on today's inflation, it would cost more than $1.5 million if you purchased all the items recited in the 12 Days. That's enough to max out anyone's credit card.

Apparently the song also got the attention of at least one reader who sent along the following which I never heard before, but I think it's worth sharing with readers as we head into Christmas week. It will give you something to think about.

He wrote:

"There is one Christmas Carol that has always baffled me. What in the world do leaping lords, French hens, swimming swans, and especially the partridge who won't come out of the pear tree have to do with Christmas?

"This week, I found out."

He believes:

From 1558 until 1829, Roman Catholics in England were not permitted to practice their faith openly. Someone during that era wrote this carol as a catechism song for young Catholics.

It has two levels of meaning: the surface meaning plus a hidden meaning known only to members of their church. Each element in the carol has a code word for a religious reality which the children could remember.

-The partridge in a pear tree was Jesus Christ.

-Two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments.

-Three French hens stood for faith, hope and love.

-The four calling birds were the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke & John.

-The five golden rings recalled the Torah or Law, the first five books of the Old Testament.

-The six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation.

-Seven swans a-swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy SpiritProphesy, Serving, Teaching, Exhortation, Contribution, Leadership, and Mercy.

-The eight maids a-milking were the eight beatitudes.

-Nine ladies dancing were the nine fruits of the Holy SpiritLove, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness,

Gentleness, and Self Control.

-The ten lords a-leaping were the ten commandments.

-The eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful disciples.

-The twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in the Apostles' Creed.

So there is your history lesson for today. Or is it?

We'd like to believe it as being the truth, but there are many skeptics, including David Emery, publisher of the Urban Legend Guide, who rates the authenticity of the religious theory as being "dubious".

He states: "Although no one is quite sure how old the lyrics to 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' are, they were already considered 'traditional' by the time the rhyme was first published around 1780. The theory that it originated as an 'underground catechism song' for oppressed Catholics appears to be quite modern, on the other hand. It was first proposed by Canadian English teacher and part-time hymnologist Hugh D. McKellar in an article entitled 'How to Decode the Twelve Days of Christmas,' published in 1979. McKellar expanded on the idea in a monograph for the scholarly journal The Hymn in 1994."

So, believe the religious theory if you wish. If not, just recognize the carol for what it is, a small part of the Christmas legend.

Merry Christmas, everyone. See you in a few weeks as we won't be publishing a Saturday edition on Christmas and New Year's days.

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