[bct] so much for the story of the 12 days of Christmas

  • From: "Neal Ewers" <neal.ewers@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "Bct" <blindcooltech@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Wed, 21 Dec 2005 16:00:22 -0600

Sorry to be a debunker here, but...
 
 
 There is no substantive evidence to demonstrate that the song "The
Twelve Days of Christmas" was created or used as a secret means of
preserving tenets
of the Catholic faith, or that this claim is anything but a fanciful
modern day speculation, similar to the many apocryphal "hidden meanings"
of various
nursery rhymes. Moreover, several flaws in the explanation argue
compellingly against it:
List of 5 items
. The key flaw in this theory is that the differences between the
Anglican and Catholic churches were largely differences in emphasis and
form which were
extrinsic to scripture. Although Catholics and Anglicans used different
English translations of the Bible (Douai-Reims and the King James
version, respectively),
all of the religious tenets supposedly preserved by the song "The Twelve
Days of Christmas" (with the possible exception of the number of
sacraments) were
shared by Catholics and Anglicans alike: both groups' Bibles included
the Old and New Testaments, both contained the five books that form the
Pentateuch,
both had the Four Gospels, both included God's creation of the universe
in six days as described in Genesis, and both enumerated the Ten
Commandments.
A Catholic might need to be wary of being caught with a Douai-Reims
Bible, but there was absolutely no reason why any Catholic would have to
hide his knowledge
of any of the concepts supposedly symbolized in "The Twelve Days of
Christmas," because these were basic articles of faith common to all
denominations
of Christianity. None of these items would distinguish a Catholic from a
Protestant, and therefore none of them needed to be "secretly" encoded
into song
lest their mention betray one as a Catholic.
 
Conversely, none of the important differences that would obviously
distinguish a Catholic from a Protestant is mentioned here. A Catholic
would have good
reason not to possess or reveal anything that would indicate his
allegiance to the Pope or his participation in the sacrament of penance
(also known as
Confession), but nothing of that nature is encapsulated in the
explanation of the symbolism supposedly to be found in the "The Twelve
Days of Christmas."
 
. If "The Twelve Days of Christmas" were really a song Catholics used
"as memory aids to preserve the tenets of their faith" because "to be
caught with
anything in writing indicating adherence to the Catholic faith could get
you imprisoned," how was the essence of Catholicism passed from one
generation
to the next? The mere memorization of a song with coded references to
"the Old and New Testaments" in no way preserves the contents of those
testaments.
How was this preservation of content accomplished if possessing the
testaments in written form was forbidden? Did Catholics memorize the
entire contents
of the Bible? Obviously not, and there was no reason to do so. Since
Catholics and Anglicans both used the Old and New Testaments, possessing
their contents
in written form did not expose one as a Catholic, and thus there was no
need to cloak common Biblical concepts through the use of mnemonic
devices. There
was no reason why "young Catholics" could not be openly taught about the
Four Gospels, or the eleven faithful apostles, or the Ten Commandments.
 
. The utility of a Christmas song as a surreptitious means of memorizing
a catechism would be quite limited, as its use would obviously be
restricted to
Christmastime. How was the supposedly forbidden catechism taught to
children throughout the rest of the year? Where are the other rhymes and
songs with
similar hidden meanings that Catholics would had to have used for their
catechism throughout the rest of the year?
 
. There are no obvious relationships between the concepts to be
memorized and the symbols used to represent them in "The Twelve Days of
Christmas." In what
way do "eight maids a-milking" remind one of the Eight Beatitudes? How
are "nine ladies dancing" supposed to bring the Nine Fruits of the Holy
Spirit to
mind? (Yes, some interpreters have attempted to explain these
relationships, but their explanations are so contrived and convoluted as
to be beyond the
grasp of the children who were supposed to be the primary beneficiaries
of this alleged cathechism song.) Without any obvious relationships
between the
symbols and the concepts they symbolize, this song is no more useful as
a "memory aid" than simply memorizing the numbers one through twelve
would be.
 
. As one would expect to find in a folkloric explanation (rather than a
factual one), there is a great deal of variation in the list of
religious tenets
supposedly symbolized in the song. The three French hens represent the
three "theological virtues" (faith, hope, and charity), or the Holy
Trinity, or
the three gifts the Magi brought for the infant Jesus. The four calling
birds are the Four Gospels, or the four major Old Testament prophets
(Isaiah, Jeremiah,
Ezekiel, and Daniel), or the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. The five
golden rings are the five books of the Pentateuch, or the five decades
of the rosary,
or the five obligatory sacraments of the Church. A song used as a
"memory aid" would have a fairly standard, fixed form, not variation
upon variation.
list end
What little has been offered in support of this claim is decidedly
unconvincing. This piece is often attributed to Fr. Hal Stockert, and in
his explanation
on a page from the web site of the
Catholic Information Network,
he wrote:
I found this information while I was researching for an entirely
unrelated project which required me to go to the Latin texts of the
sources pertinent to
my research. Among those primary documents there were letters from Irish
priests, mostly Jesuits, writing back to the motherhouse at
Douai-Rheims, in France,
mentioning this purely as an aside, and not at all as part of the main
content of the letters.
So where is the information gleaned from these letters? As Fr. Stockert
explained to syndicated religion writer Terry Mattingly in 1999:
"I've got all kinds of people writing me demanding references for my
work," he said. "I wish I could give them what they want, but all of my
notes were
ruined when our church had a plumbing leak and the basement flooded."
Meanwhile, he said, his copy of the original article is on "a computer
floppy disk
that is so old that nobody has a machine that can read it, anymore."
Fr. Stockert's loss is unfortunate, but evidence that cannot be examined
is not evidence.
 
What we do know is that the twelve days of Christmas in the song are the
twelve days between the birth of Christ (Christmas, December 25) and the
coming
of the Magi (Epiphany, January 6). Although the specific origins of the
song "The Twelve Days of Christmas" are not known, it possibly began as
a Twelfth
Night "memory-and-forfeits" game in which the leader recited a verse,
each of the players repeated the verse, the leader added another verse,
and so on
until one of the players made a mistake, with the player who erred
having to pay a penalty, such as a offering up a kiss or a sweet. This
is how the song
was presented in its earliest known printed version, in the 1780
children's book Mirth Without Mischief. (The song is apparently much
older than this printed
version, but we do not currently know how much older.) Textual evidence
indicates that the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was not English
in origin,
but French. Three French versions of the song are known, and items
mentioned in the song itself (the partridge, for example, which was not
introduced to
England from France until the late 1770s) are indicative of a French
origin.

 
Neal Ewers
Ravenswood Productions
Local phone:  608-277-1995
Toll Free:  888-544-8332
Email:  neal.ewers@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx
http://www.ravenswood.org <http://www.ravenswood.org/> 
 

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