There is something curiously old-fashioned about the number 12. In a digital age of tens and multiples of ten, the extra 2 in a dozen give a cosy sense of liberality, a bonus on bare necessity. Bake a dozen buns for the school fete, and the 2 left over go perfectly with a cup of tea, a delicious reward for virtuous labour.
The number 12 is deeply rooted in British culture, being the quantity of old pennies in a shilling, inches in a foot, months of the year and the disciples of Jesus. It is linked to the elective purposes of God and indicates his sovereign plans.
Now we have arrived once again at December, the twelfth month with expectations of feasts and parties, hectic shopping and cooking, exchange of gifts and rehearsals for nativity plays. Taking part in the joy, warmth and unity of a Carol Service is an experience that we would want every child to treasure in memory, along with the true meaning of Christmas.
This brings us to a song, often heard in our traditional medley of seasonal music. It may be speculation but according to some accounts between 1558 and 1829, when Catholicism was under stress and even persecution, children in England were taught songs with secret codes in order to preserve faith. The Twelve Days of Christmas served this purpose well. It begins with “My True Love (God) sent to me (every baptized person) a partridge in a pear tree.” Jesus used the imagery of a mother bird sheltering her chicks under her wings to protect them, prepared herself to endure whatever trauma may befall them. In our song, Jesus Christ is symbolized by the partridge, drawing evil away from the defenceless brood, by acting as a decoy. It has been said that the cry of the partridge sounds like “Jerusalem, Jerusalem.” Why does it sit in a pear tree? The unfortunate apple, associated in tradition with the fall in the Garden of Eden, would never do. Instead, the pear symbolizes hope and the
generosity of Christ’s love towards us. The 2 Turtle Doves represent the Old and New Testaments, whilst the 3 French Hens are the virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity. Next came the 4 Calling Birds, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, followed by 5 Gold Rings, the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the Old Testament. The 6 Geese A-Laying represent Creation, whilst the 7 Swans A-Swimming are the seven-fold gifts of the Holy Spirit. The 8 Beatitudes are represented by 8 Maids A-
Milking, and the 9 Ladies Dancing are a reminder of the fruits of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Galatians 5v22. 10 Lords A-Leaping are 10 Commandments. Finally, 11 Pipers Piping, the 11 faithful apostles herald the 12 Drummers Drumming, the 12 doctrinal points of the Apostles Creed.
The song is now integrated into the world of commerce and advertising. Its visual imagery provides ample scope for artistic display and the jaunty tune is easily recalled. We do well however, to consider that behind its charm, there lies a profound, enduring message. God has sought to communicate his love and grace towards us through the Scriptures and in the all-surpassing gift of his Beloved Son.
The number 12 is associated with the concept of strength, derived from unity and purpose, as in members of a jury, and the 12 Tribes of Israel. During the 12 days of Christmas, may your family bonds be strengthened, your community links encouraged, and your faith empowered and hope increased. Give thanks for each gift behind the symbols of the song, beginning with the birth of Jesus.
“The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6v23.
A very happy Christmas to you all.