Saturday, 25 December 2010

A partridge in a pear tree on the first day of Christmas

Love came down at Christmas … an icon of the Nativity of Christ

Patrick Comerford

Despite the heavy snow that has blanketed much of northern Europe, there has been a shopping frenzy almost everywhere for the past two weeks. And for the past two weeks we have been constantly told when Christmas begins … when you send the Christmas cards … when you start shopping in one or other shopping centre … when you buy a particular brand of clothes or food … when Santa arrives in his grotty grotto … or when the sales start in the high street shops.

Most of us have been singing Christmas carols rather than Advent carols for the past few weeks – even in our churches.

I imagine with all this misappropriation of the meaning of times and seasons, if I were to ask most people which are the 12 days of Christmas they would probably answer 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24 and 25 December.

But today, 25 December, is the First Day of Christmas, not the Twelfth Day of Christmas. This is Christmas Day. The festival and the festivities begin today. Christmastide has arrived.

In mediaeval England, the 12 Days of Christmas marked a period of continuous feasting and merry-making that reached its climax on Twelfth Night, the traditional end of the Christmas Season. Often, a Lord of Misrule was chosen to lead the revels.

The Twelfth Day of Christmas is 5 January, and our celebrations of Christmas traditionally end on the Twelfth Night, which is then followed by the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January. The Twelve Days of Christmas are a festive period linking together these two Great Feasts of the Nativity and Theophany, so that one celebration leads into another.

In the Orthodox tradition, the 12 Days of Christmas are observed as a fast-free period of celebration, although for those Orthodox Churches following the Julian calendar Christmas Day falls on 7 January and for the Armenian churches Christmas is celebrated on 6 January. In the Orthodox tradition, then, the Nativity of Christ is a three-day celebration, recalling not only the Birth of Christ, but also his adoration by the Shepherds of Bethlehem and the arrival of the Magi.

The Twelve Days of Christmas is a traditional Christmas song that counts out a series of increasingly generous gifts given by the singer’s “true love” on each of the 12 Days of Christmas.

The song may have French origins, but it was first published in England in 1780. It may have its beginnings in a Twelfth Night “memories-and-forfeits” game, in which a 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. The player who erred at the end then had to pay a forfeit, such as offering up a kiss or a sweet.

The earliest well-known version of the music of the song was recorded by English scholar James O. Halliwell in 1842. However, the early 20th century arrangement by the English composer Frederic Austen has since become the standard.

If my true love followed through with the 12 Days of Christmas, I would end up with 224 birds in all: 12 partridges, 22 turtle doves, 30 French hens, 36 colly (or calling) birds, 40 gold rings (pheasants), 42 geese and 42 swans.

Since 1984, the cumulative costs of the items mentioned in the song have been used as a tongue-in-cheek economic indicator, a custom began with and is maintained by PNC Bank. Two pricing charts are drawn up, referred to as the Christmas Price Index and The True Cost of Christmas. The former is an index of the current costs of one set of each of the gifts given sent by the True Love to the singer of the song; the latter is the cumulative cost of all the gifts with the repetitions listed in the song. Of course, the people mentioned in the song are hired, not bought. The original cost of all goods and services at Christmas 1984 was $12,623.10. The total costs of all goods and services according to the Christmas Price Index this year (2010) is $23,439.

One explanation of the song suggests that the gift on each day represents the food or sport for each month of the year and the lines that survive today are merely an irreligious travesty.

However, another explanation suggests that the lyrics were written as a catechism song to help young people learn their faith, at a time when celebrations of Christmas were discouraged, frowned on, or prohibited, during the Cromwellian era (1649-1660), or when Roman Catholics suffered under penal laws.

But this attempt to antedate a relatively modern song is without foundation, but all the truths affirmed in this interpretation are common to Anglicans and Roman Catholics, and are shared too by the traditions that developed out of the Cromwellian era, including the Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists.

Snow on snow … Lichfield Cathedral seen from the gardens of Darwin House this week by Michael Fabricant, MP for Lichfield

The first verse of the traditional song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, is:

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me ...
a partridge in a pear tree.


Christian interpretations of this song often see the partridge in a pear tree as a figurative representation of Christ on the Cross, so that God, in his infinite love, sent on Christmas Day the gift of Christ the Saviour. As the poet Christina Rossetti wrote, “Love came down at Christmas” (Church Hymnal, Church of Ireland, 2000, # 170):

Love came down at Christmas,
love all lovely, love divine;
love was born at Christmas:
star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
love incarnate, love divine;
worship we our Jesus:
but wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token;
love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men,
love for plea and gift and sign.


A mother partridge feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings, recalling the expression of Christ’s sadness over the fate of Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Luke 13: 34).

Three sets of lectionary readings are provided for the Eucharist today:

Set 1, Isaiah 9: 2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2: 11-14; Luke 2: 1-14 (15-20).

Set 2, Isaiah 62: 6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3: 4-7; Luke 2: (1-7), 8-20.

Set 3, Isaiah 52: 7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1: 1-4 (5-12); John 1: 1-14 (15-18).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.