The 12 Days of Christmas
On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Twelve drummers drumming…
We’ve reached the last day of our twelve days of Christmas, and we hope you’ve enjoyed the series.
Today is Epiphany Eve, or Twelfth Night, a day which is celebrated in many countries as a day of special festivity. Many of these traditions include a special cake with a bean and pea baked inside: the man who discovers the pea becomes king for the night, while the woman who finds the pea becomes queen. An American version has the figure of the Christ Child baked into the cake in lieu of the bean.
In England, Twelfth Night was the time to go a-wassailing, although in some parts of the west country this took place on January 17th, still going by the old, pre-1750 calendar. Wassail was a punch, which would be doled out to the door-to-door carol-singing wassailers, and this tradition was still going until the 1950s.
It is customary to leave Christmas decorations up until Twelfth Night. When fresh fruits were scarce, they would be used to decorate the house over Christmas and then eaten as part of the Twelfth Night festivities. We have often practised a modern variation of this: discovering and eating the remaining chocolate decorations as we take down our tree!
The picture today is of a Spanish Twelfth Night edible treat, and we’ll leave you with a traditional wassailing carol to listen to here.
On the eleventh day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Eleven pipers piping…
If you look for illustrations of the eleventh day of Christmas, you’ll find a surprising number of different interpretations of the word ‘piper’. Some are shown, as I’ve always pictured in my head, as eleven kilted Scotsmen playing the bagpipes. But an equal number of depictions show flautists, and a few show an instrument that might be a recorder or an oboe.
And if you go on to look for references to pipes or pipers in the Bible, you’ll find a similar array of instruments described, according to which translation is used - yes, even bagpipes in some! The Greek word used in the New Testament definitely refers to some sort of woodwind instrument, but even then it isn’t clear whether the authors are talking about something side-blown, like the modern flute, front-blown like a recorder, or with reeds like an oboe. What is clear is that instruments made from a hollow tube, with a hole to blow down and holes for the fingers were very common, even in the days of the Old and New Testaments.
The accompanying picture is of Jubal, described in Genesis chapter 4 as “the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes”.
As we approach the Feast of the Epiphany on Wednesday, when the three wise men visit the baby Jesus, here is an appropriate carol played on rather more than eleven flutes. Notice the extra large contrabass flute just behind the conductor - the one with the tube bent into a triangle.
On the tenth day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Ten lords a-leaping…
The Twelve Days of Christmas: folk song or Catholic cypher?
A rumour sprang up in the late 1970s that the lyrics of the song were a code for Catholic children to learn their catechism. For example, the ten lords a-leaping refer to the ten commandments, the eleven pipers piping to the disciples and the twelve drummers drumming to the points of the Apostles’ Creed. The theory that this song was used at a time when Catholicism was officially banned in Britain has a number of large flaws, the main one being that there is no evidence to support it!
In fact, the origins of the folk song go back to the eighteenth century, probably to the north-east of England. Similar songs appear in Scotland, the Faroe Islands and France, and it is thought that the pear tree was a corruption of the French word ‘perdrix’ meaning ‘partridge’.
There are many versions of the song available to listen to, some more wacky than others, but a fairly ‘straight’ version for you is here.
By Xavier Romero-Frias
On the ninth day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Nine ladies dancing …
Today is the Feast Day of St Basil the Great, who lived in the fourth century AD. He was born in Cappadocia (in modern Turkey) to a rich family, but later became a travelling ascetic and a bishop. He is renowned not only as a theologian, but also as a founder of hospitals, homes for those living in poverty and hospices (hostels) for pilgrims.
St Basil was a major force for Christian unity, speaking out against some of the major heresies of the day and endeavouring to keep the various areas of the church together.
This picture is of the famous St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, as seen from Red Square.
On the eighth day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Eight maids a-milking…
The new year starts on 1st January - or does it? Although we are used (in normal times) to seeing fireworks from around the world celebrating the arrival of the new year, in fact many countries, cultures and religions celebrate the start of a new year at a different point in the calendar. If you’ve ever tried arranging a meeting between a teacher, priest and a businessman you’ll find that their diaries run from three different starting points: September for the teacher, the beginning of Advent for the priest and January for the businessman (or possibly April, for the new tax year).
Nevertheless, this is the day that we all move into 2021, and we wish you all a very
Happy New Year!
On the seventh day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Seven swans a-swimming … (and eight bells a-ringing!)
‘The Nine Tailors’ by Dorothy L Sayers begins on New Year’s Eve with a car accident, a Watchnight service and a bellringing peal that begins at midnight and lasts for nine hours! One of her finest crime novels, it is also a good introduction to the mysteries of change ringing, that strange way of ringing church bells that we have in this country.
Surprisingly, although there are no bells hung for full circle ringing at Christ Church, there are a number of tower bell ringers concealed in our congregation who have to disappear off to other churches such as Crondall and St Michael’s, Aldershot to practise their art. Our handbell ringers also offer us a chance to hear a few of the traditional changes: rounds, where the bells ring in a descending scale in the order 12345678; Queens (13572468); Kings (75312468) and Whittingtons (12753468).
The peal rung in ‘The Nine Tailors’ is a more complicated method, Kent Treble Bob Major, where the order changes every time the bells ring, and no change is repeated. A recording of the bells of Blackburn Cathedral ringing Kent Treble Bob Major can be found here.
On the sixth day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Six geese a-laying …
In Celtic Christianity the wild goose, rather than the dove, is used as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Rather than the steady flight of the dove, the wild goose swoops and darts, giving an element of surprise to its movements. Likewise, the Holy Spirit does not merely lead us beside still waters, but pulls and tugs us this way and that, away from complacency and into action.
There is a Roman legend that the invasion of Rome by the Gauls was thwarted when a flock of geese loudly sounded the alarm and woke the guards. Many of the saints of Christian history have been awakened similarly by the insistent call to action of the Holy Spirit.
The Iona community is particularly associated with the wild goose. A link to a beautiful Iona song, written by John Bell and published by Wild Goose Publications is here.
On the fifth day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Five gold rings… (or three Cornish choughs)
Today is the 850th anniversary of the murder in Canterbury Cathedral of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas Becket was declared a saint less than three years after his death, and a shrine, containing his remains, was erected in the cathedral in 1220. It remained there until the dissolution of the monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII.
The city of Canterbury and churches dedicated to St Thomas Becket show the arms attributed to him: three Cornish choughs.
On the fourth day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Four colly (or calling) birds…
Today is Holy Innocents Day, a rather dark part of the Christmas narrative which tends to get left out of the usual Christmas readings. We hear in Matthew chapter 2 that King Herod, having been visited by the Magi enquiring about the birth of an infant king, slaughtered all the children under the age of 2 as a precaution.
Perhaps the best-known version of this story outside of the Bible is found in the words of the Coventry Carol. Originally sung as part of the Coventry Mystery Plays, the oldest version of this carol dates from 1534, and was sung by three women of Bethlehem. Because of the tradition of the time, these three ‘women’ were played by men!
A link to a beautiful rendition of the carol is here.
On the third day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
Three French hens … (or one bald eagle?)
Today is the Feast Day of St John the Evangelist. The fourth gospel, three epistles and the book of Revelation have traditionally been attributed to him. He is also thought to be the disciple John, the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ in the fourth gospel.
St John is symbolically represented by an eagle, and although the North American bald eagle seems a little inappropriate, it happens that Webmaster Kevin took a lovely photograph of one at a falconry display in France a few years ago, so we thought we would share it with you.
On the second day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
Two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.
The 26th December, Boxing Day in the UK, is also the Feast of St Stephen the Martyr. You can read his story in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 7. Many European countries have a public holiday today, but for St Stephen’s Day rather than for Boxing Day. In Ireland, the day is also called Wren day, and is commemorated by folk costumes, music and dances portraying legends from Irish folklore; linking episodes from the life of Jesus to the wren.
The tradition of mumming is particularly associated with this day. Crookham mummers are online this year, and their play can be found on Youtube here.
Finally, here is a rather different version of a carol we associate with this day. It is worth listening to the end!