“The Magi,” By Henry Siddons Mowbray 1915 (Special photo)
When you hear the phrase, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” most minds probably immediately think of a song that involves a variety of Christmas items, from 12 drummers drumming to five gold rings and of course, a partridge in a pear tree.
But this is only part of the story.
Contrary to popular belief, the 12 Days of Christmas do not happen before the holiday, but after, in the span of days from Dec. 25 until Jan. 5. These days are a prelude to Epiphany on Jan. 6, a day that Christian believers commemorate as a day of celebrating the three wise men’s visit to baby Jesus and also remembers his baptism.
The name “Epiphany” comes from the Greek word “Epiphania,” and means “to show, make known, or reveal.” The celebration originated in the Eastern Church in AD 361, beginning as a commemoration of the birth of Christ. It is celebrated differently in various cultures.
In Western Christianity, Epiphany is associated with the visit of the wise men to the Christ child. Through the Magi, Christ revealed himself to the gentiles. In Eastern Christianity, Epiphany puts emphasis on the baptism of Jesus by John, with Christ revealing himself to the world as God’s own Son. Others commemorate Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine, signifying the manifestation of Christ’s divinity as well.
The day is now observed as a time of focusing on the mission of the church in reaching others by showing Jesus as the Savior of all people. It is also a time of focusing on Christian community and fellowship.
For many Christians, Epiphany is a reminder of God the Father’s unlimited love and mercy, which He has extended to all of mankind through the revelation of His Son, and of the hope of salvation that is now manifest for all who come to him in faith.
The song “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” is most commonly viewed as a whimsical Christmas song. But some legends allude that it may actually be a song of Christian instruction, possibly dating back to the time of religious wars in 16th century England. There are suggestions that the twelve days of Christmas may actually be hidden references to basic teachings – a mnemonic device of sorts to help teach children foundations of the Christian faith.
No one knows for sure, but if this is true, then the Twelve Days of Christmas could mean much more than just presents from a true love. Whatever its origin, the time leading to Epiphany is a time of remembrance and celebration, and even a “nonsense” song can help serve as a reminder.
“The Twelve Days of Christmas”
On the 1st day of Christmas my true love gave to me … A Partridge in a Pear Tree
The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, whose birthday is celebrated on Dec. 25, the first day of Christmas.
On the 2nd day of Christmas my true love gave to me … Two Turtle Doves
The Old and New Testaments, which together bear witness to God’s self-revelation in history and the creation of a people to tell the Story of God to the world.
On the 3rd day of Christmas my true love gave to me … Three French Hens
The Three Theological Virtues: 1) Faith, 2) Hope, and 3) Love (1 Corinthians 13:13)
On the 4th day of Christmas my true love gave to me … Four Calling Birds
The Four Gospels: 1) Matthew, 2) Mark, 3) Luke, and 4) John, which proclaim the Good News of God’s reconciliation of the world to Himself in Jesus Christ.
On the 5th day of Christmas my true love gave to me … Five Gold Rings
The first Five Books of the Old Testament, known as the Torah or the Pentateuch: 1) Genesis, 2) Exodus, 3) Leviticus, 4) Numbers, and 5) Deuteronomy, which gives the history of humanity’s sinful failure and God’s response of grace in the creation of a people to be a light to the world.
On the 6th day of Christmas my true love gave to me … Six Geese a-Laying
The six days of creation that confesses God as Creator and Sustainer of the world (Genesis 1).
On the 7th day of Christmas my true love gave to me … Seven Swans a-Swimming
The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: 1) prophecy, 2) ministry, 3) teaching, 4) exhortation, 5) giving, 6) leading, and 7) compassion (Romans 12:6-8; cf. 1 Corinthians 12:8-11)
On the 8th day of Christmas my true love gave to me … Eight Maids a-Milking
The eight Beatitudes: 1) Blessed are the poor in spirit, 2) those who mourn, 3) the meek, 4) those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, 5) the merciful, 6) the pure in heart, 7) the peacemakers, 8) those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. (Matthew 5:3-10)
On the 9th day of Christmas my true love gave to me … Nine Ladies Dancing
The nine Fruit of the Holy Spirit: 1) love, 2) joy, 3) peace, 4) patience, 5) kindness, 6) generosity, 7) faithfulness, 8) gentleness, and 9) self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)
On the 10th day of Christmas my true love gave to me … Ten Lords a-Leaping
The ten commandments: 1) You shall have no other gods before me; 2) Do not make an idol; 3) Do not take God’s name in vain; 4) Remember the Sabbath Day; 5) Honor your father and mother; 6) Do not murder; 7) Do not commit adultery; 8) Do not steal; 9) Do not bear false witness; 10) Do not covet. (Exodus 20:1-17)
On the 11th day of Christmas my true love gave to me … Eleven Pipers Piping
The eleven Faithful Apostles: 1) Simon Peter, 2) Andrew, 3) James, 4) John, 5) Philip, 6) Bartholomew, 7) Matthew, 8) Thomas, 9) James bar Alphaeus, 10) Simon the Zealot, 11) Judas bar James. (Luke 6:14-16). The list does not include the twelfth disciple, Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus to the religious leaders and the Romans.
On the 12th day of Christmas my true love gave to me … Twelve Drummers Drumming
The twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles’ Creed: 1) I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. 2) I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. 3) He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. 4) He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell (the grave). 5) On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. 6) He will come again to judge the living and the dead. 7) I believe in the Holy Spirit, 8) the holy catholic Church, 9) the communion of saints, 10) the forgiveness of sins, 11) the resurrection of the body, 12) and life everlasting.