Monday, 10 December 2018

Counting the true cost of
the 12 days of Christmas

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas … twelve drummer drumming. This CartoonChurch.com cartoon originally appeared in the Church Times and is taken from ‘My Pew: Things I have seen from it’, published by Canterbury Press

Patrick Comerford

Some people think this is Christmas time. But this is Advent, and Christmas begins on Christmas Day, 25 December, and continues for 12 Days until 5 January. When we reach the end of Christmas, we celebrate the Epiphany on 6 January, known as ‘Twelfth Night.’

There is a twelve-verse song that helped people in the past to count out these days, called The Twelve Days of Christmas. When I was a child, it was a favourite song for boring adults. But the way it counts out the numbers is very interesting.
I’m not going to sing all of it, but the last verse sings:

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me …
12 drummers drumming,
11 pipers piping,
10 lords a leaping,
nine ladies dancing,
eight maids-a-milking,
seven swans-a-swimming,
six geese-a-laying,
five golden rings,
four colly birds,
three French hens,
two turtle doves
and a partridge in a pear tree.


This song 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 been a ‘memories-and-forfeits’ game. The leader recites a verse, each player repeats the verse, the leader adds another verse, and so on until one player makes a mistake. That player then has to pay a forfeit, giving someone a kiss or a sweet.

One explanation says the lyrics were written as a catechism song to help young people learn their faith when celebrations of Christmas were prohibited, during the Cromwellian era (1649-1660).

On the First Day of Christmas … a partridge in a pear tree (The PNC Christmas Price Index 2018)

25 December: Christian interpretations of this song often see the partridge in a pear tree as a representation of Christ on the Cross, so that God, in his infinite love, sent on Christmas Day the gift of Christ the Saviour. A mother partridge feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings, recalling Christ’s saying: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem … How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings …’ (Luke 13: 34).

On the Second Day of Christmas … two turtle doves

26 December: We often say he two turtle doves represent the Bible, the Old Testament and the New Testament, or teach the truth Jesus Christ was both God and human.

On the Third Day of Christmas … three French hens

27 December: The Christian interpretation of this song often sees the three French hens as figurative representations of the three theological virtues – faith, hope and love (see I Corinthians 13: 13). Others say they represent the three persons of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; or the three gifts of the Wise Men, gold, frankincense and myrrh.

On the Fourth Day of Christmas … four colly birds

28 December: Colly birds were blackbirds, but the Christian interpretation of this song often describes them as ‘calling birds’ so that they come to represent the Four Evangelists or the Four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

On the Fifth Day of Christmas … five golden rings

29 December: The Christian interpretation of this song often sees the five golden rings as figurative representations of the Torah or the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

On the Sixth Day of Christmas … six geese-a-laying; geese on the banks of the River Cam behind King’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Tenaya Hurst)

30 December: The Christian interpretation of this song often sees the six geese a-laying as figurative representations of the six days of Creation (see Genesis 1).

On the Seventh Day of Christmas … seven swans-a-swimming on the Grand Canal at Harold’s Cross in Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

31 December: the seven swans-a-swimming are supposed to make us think of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety and Fear of the Lord.

On the Eighth Day of Christmas … eight maids-a-milking

1 January: Many see the eight maids-a-milking as a way of representing the eight Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5: 2-10):

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

On the Ninth Day of Christmas … Nine Ladies Dancing

2 January: The nine ladies dancing represent the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit described by Saint Paul (see Galatians 5: 19-23):

● Love,
● Joy,
● Peace,
● Patience,
● Kindness,
● Goodness,
● Faithfulness,
● Gentleness, and
● Self-control

On the Tenth Day of Christmas … ten lords-a-leaping at a charity event in the House of Lords

3 January: the 10 lords-a-leaping may represent the 10 Commandments.

On the Eleventh Day of Christmas … eleven pipers piping; a pack of Christmas cards designed by the English designer, Julia Crossland

4 January: The 11 pipers piping are seen as representatives of the 11 faithful disciples, counting out Judas: Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot and Jude.



5 January: The 12 drummers drumming are said to represent of the 12 points of the Apostles’ Creed.

Adding it all up

If my true love gave me all those gifts in 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.

If we are add all the gifts together, they would add up to 364 gifts, which, along with the true love, comes to 365, the number of days in the year.

Since 1984, the costs of the have been estimated by PNC Bank, in the Christmas Price Index. 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. This year (2018), the total costs of all goods and services according to the Christmas Price Index is $39,094.93, ‘due to high-flying Geese prices and a tight labour market for Lords-a-Leaping, Pipers Piping and Drummers Drumming.’

The ‘True Cost of Christmas in Song’ is $170,609.46, the cumulative cost of all the gifts when you count each repetition in the song (364 gifts).

But the real cost of Christmas, is that God gave us his only Son, Jesus Christ, and the true love of Christmas, is God’s love for us in Christ.

Love came down at Christmas … the true cost of Christmas, and true love at Christmas

These notes were prepared for a school assembly in Rathkeale, Co Limerick, on Monday 10 December 2018

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