“On the 12th Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me….”

Many of us might think that today (the 6th January, the Feast of the Epiphany) is the 12th day of Christmas. So you are probably planning to rush home after church to take down your Christmas decorations following the ancient tradition. Well, if you do you will be 24 hours late. The 12th day of Christmas is in fact the 5th January – just try and count them out starting with 25th December as the 1st day. So ‘Twelth Night’ was in fact last night and your decorations should have come down before you came to Mass!
But don’t worry. Because there is another tradition that says that Christmas (like Lent) lasts not 12 days but 40 days and ends with the Feast of the Presentation on 2nd February. So if you really like to be surrounded by fairy lights and tinsel and a fir tree dropping needles on the floor you can carry on for another 27 days! And of course this is in marked contrast to the secular tradition as seen in our shopping malls in which Christmas starts at the beginning of December (or sometimes even earlier) and ends on Christmas Day (even though that is actually when it begins!).
My advice is to take down the decorations when you get tired of them and don’t let anyone bully you.
One of my favourite aspects of the 12 days of Christmas is the song quoted above. As I child I delighted in committing to memory the details of each of the 12 days and then singing the song over and over again to my increasingly irritated parents. I was thrilled to read later in life that the song was not only fun but appeared to have a deeply Catholic significance. The claim is that it was created as a way of enabling Catholics in England during the 17th century to ‘teach the faith’ in a coded way in the face of persecuting Protestants. The ‘true love’ was not a boyfriend but God; the partridge in the pear tree was a symbol of Christ on the cross; and then each of the other gifts a way of enumerating aspects of the faith: 2 testaments, 3 Kings, 4 Gospels, 5 books of the Torah, 6 days of creation, 7 cardinal virtues, 8 beatitudes, 9 fruits of the Holy Spirit, 10 commandments, 11 Apostles (not counting Judas) and 12 tribes of Israel.
But unfortunately this is a complete fantasy dating only to the 1970s! It actually does not hold much water – the song was originally French not English, the link between maid-a-milking and beatitudes would be hard to find, and the 4 calling birds that signify the Gospels were actually ‘colly birds’. In any case, there is nothing especially Catholic about the claimed teaching in the song.
So perhaps the one lesson we can draw, in this Year of Faith, is that we should indeed be learning our faith but probably we should rely on something a bit more reliable than an old song. Perhaps one way, which is almost as much fun, is to sign up to receive extracts from the catechism as a daily SMS. It only costs R4 per week. Just send the word JOY to 31222 – how about that for a New Year’s resolution!

Mr Raymond Perrier

Raymond Perrier was a previous director of South Africa's Jesuit Institute. He was hired away from the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, England's CARITAS agency and the country's largest Catholic organization, in 2009. A former Jesuit himself (Perrier left after the regency or full-time ministry period of Jesuit formation), he had lived and worked for two years in the United States at St. Francis Xavier Parish in lower Manhattan, N.Y., and he had a corporate background, having worked as a consultant for businesses in the United Kingdom and South Africa before entering the Jesuits. Perrier was born and raised in the United Kingdom, a son of Indian parents. Under his leadership the Institute established partnerships with the University of Johannesburg (on public morality), with the Origins Centre of Wits University (on creation and evolution), and with the Catholic Institute of Education (a national leadership program for rural school principals).

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