05 January 2011

Twelve drummers drumming on the Twelfth Day 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

Today is the Twelfth Day of Christmas, 5 January. We have reached the end of the Christmas festival, and tomorrow we celebrate the Epiphany.

The Twelfth Night parties in the middle ages could be quite rowdy. It was the Feast of Fools in which the order of the world was turned upside down, with fools reigning as kings and people taking on roles that were contrary to their true character. Shakespeare used this night as the setting for his play, Twelfth Night, in which he gives us a picture of such a topsy-turvy world as Viola masquerades as a man, people fall in love across class lines, and the lowly indulge in ridiculous delusions of grandeur.

It would be foolhardy to deny the Christian significance of all this. By the time the Wise Men arrive in Bethlehem, the Holy Family is living in neither a stable nor in an inn, but in a house. They find the King they have been searching for, but he is not living in a palace. The mediaeval Feast of Fools reminds us that Christmas celebrates nothing less than a world turned upside down in which God becomes man in order that man might become divine.

The Twelfth Day of Christmas is 5 January, and our celebrations of Christmas traditionally end tonight, 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, 5 January is the Eve of the Theophany, and a day of strict fasting, on which the devout will not eat anything until the first star is seen at night.

This day is known as Paramony (“preparation”) and is observed in a similar way to Christmas Eve. This morning is marked by the celebration of the Royal Hours, and then the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil combined with Vespers. At the conclusion, the Great Blessing of the Waters commemorates the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the waters of the River Jordan.

Some parallels may be drawn between the hymns sung on Paramony and those sung on Great or Good Friday, because the steps that Christ took into the waters of the Jordan were also his first steps on the way to the Cross.

The all-night vigil tonight is served for the Feast of the Theophany.

Nowadays, the Twelfth Day is the last day for decorations to be taken down. Some folklore holds that it is bad luck to take decorations down after this date. But in Elizabethan England, the decorations were left up until Candelmas, and this remains the tradition in Germany and many other European countries.

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

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.

The Christian interpretation of this song often sees the twelve drummers drumming as figurative representations of the twelve points of the Apostles’ Creed:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

The Church of Ireland Lectionary readings for the Eucharist today are: I John 3: 11-21; Psalm 100; John 1: 43-51.

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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