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Monday, January 02, 2006

On the Ninth Day of Christmas...Nine Ladies Dancing
by Chuck

Christmas E-Cards

On the ninth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Nine ladies dancing,
Eight maids a-milking,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

The nine ladies dancing evokes images of music and dancing which were a big part of the celebrations at this period of history in England. The term ladies probably refers to noble ladies as in a Lord and his Lady or a lady in waiting (high born ladies who waited on the queen at court – not servant women). In this case ladies would be women dancing socially and not entertainers. For the most part women were not entertainers in this era so it is unlikely that this refers to a troupe of dancing women.

So far, for each day's stanza I have tried to explain what that day's gift is describing. The words to this song first appeared in print three hundred and twenty-five years ago in 1780 in a children's book entitled Mirth Without Mischief . The song itself, of course, is much older. Both language and culture change and evolve over time. If one mentioned a gold ring at a sixteenth century feast in England the listener immediately knew that the comment referred to a ring-necked pheasant, not a piece of jewelry. But in twenty-first century urban America pheasants are neither a common food nor a common topic of conversation. Understanding what the original words referred to and the cultural context in which they were makes the song less nonsensical. Essentially I have been explaining the words in this song in a way that twenty-first century urban Americans can understand and relate to.

However, many claim that the secular words and images evoked in the song actually represent religious images. Again, language and culture change over time and a good argument can be made that, in the Middle Ages , during which the temporal and spiritual aspects of life were intermixed in daily life to a much greater extent than they are for most people today, that the words of the song evoked religious images. The New Testament contains many parables (stories with a religious message) which Jesus told to the masses and they understood clearly what he meant but modern people, myself included, need to have the stories explained because life has changed considerably in the past two thousand years.

In recent years an additional dimension has been added and that is that the song deliberately uses secular words and images to convey Catholic religious teachings to children during a period when the Catholic Church was outlawed in England and Catholics persecuted for practicing their faith. This theory, which I will discuss in more detail tomorrow, has spread widely on the Internet and appears on Christian websites (both Catholic and Protestant) where the song is described either as a code for teaching the Catholic faith during a time of religious persecution or presented simply as an explanation of the Christian symbolism behind the words in the carol. Of the many sites that I have visited, all attach the same symbols to each of the days. Below is a description of the religious symbol that each of the stanzas represent (for a more detailed explanation of the symbolism visit the Christmas Carnivals website.)

A Partridge in a pear tree = The One true God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ
Two Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments
Three French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity
Four Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
Five Golden Rings = The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch" which contain the law condemning us of our sins.
Six Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
Seven Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments of the Catholic faith
Eight Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
Nine Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Spirit
Ten Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
Eleven Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
Twelve Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

Since the above list is the same list of definitions published by Fr. Hal Stockert in a 1982 article (different dates are cited in the various discussions of this as well as whether the original article was in print or on-line – I am still searching for the original article) I suspect that his article is the original source of the definitions of the religious symbolism behind the words in the song.

If it is true that the idea of religious symbolism behind the words in The Twelve Days of Christmas then the claim made on the Snopes.Com site that attaching religious symbolism to a secular Christmas carol is the reverse of the attempts made by others to secularize Christmas has merit. The Snopes author thinks that this is wrong and seems to prefer that a line be drawn between the sacred and secular aspects of Christmas. However, as I have attempted to show in this entire Christmas series, all of our Christmas customs are a mixture of sacred and secular and this practice of incorporating pagan and secular symbols and customs into Christianity was encouraged by the early Church.

While I have no doubt that the The Twelve Days of Christmas evolved from earlier religious carols I am convinced that by the time it was first published in written form it was a carol about the secular aspects of the holiday and sung during the secular celebrations of the holiday season. The purpose of the secular festivities was the celebration of the birth of Christ, a religious event. Humans consist of both body and soul and, as such, are a combination of material and spirit. Thus, it is only natural that celebrations such as Christmas combine both religious and secular elements. The fact that some people wish to attach a religious meaning to a secular carol does nothing to reduce the enjoyment of those who wish to use it as a secular carol.

I, like most people who consider religious belief and practice an important part of their life, enjoy the secular aspects of Christmas as well as the religious. I have no problem with people who wish to make Christmas either more secular or more religious. What I do have a problem with is those who seek to use the police power of government, whether they be Oliver Cromwell's seventeenth century Puritan zealots seeking to stamp out all secular references to Christmas or the ACLU's twenty-first century legal zealots seeking to outlaw religious references to Christmas.

Copyright © 2005-2006 by Charles J. Nugent Jr. and Victor L. Nugent.

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