04 January 2011

Eleven pipers piping on the Eleventh Day of Christmas

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

Patrick Comerford

The Eleventh Day of Christmas is 4 January. In North America, many churches recall Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born saint, on this day. She was born in New York City in August 1774 into a devout Episcopalian family. In 1794 she married William Magee Seton, a rich businessman. Elizabeth and her sister-in-law Rebecca Seton went on missions of mercy to help the poor of New York, and became known as the ‘Protestant Sisters of Charity.’

On a visit to Italy, William Seton died and Elizabeth later became a Roman Catholic before returning to the US. Elizabeth and Rebecca later organised the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph, who are still active today, teaching children and helping the poor.

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

On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
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.

The Christian interpretation of this song often sees the eleven pipers piping as figurative representations of the eleven faithful disciples, counting out Judas: Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot and Jude.

The Church of Ireland Lectionary readings for the Eucharist today are: I John 3: 7-10; Psalm 98: 1, 8-10; John 1: 35-42.

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

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