December 17, 2015

"The Twelve Days of Christmas" was an Underground Catechism for Catholics Experiencing Persecution


We have all heard the Christmas song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas". To most it's a delightful nonsense rhyme set to music. However, it had a serious purpose when it was written.

It is much more than a repetitious melody with memorable phrases and a list of strange gifts.

Catholics in England during the period 1558 to 1829, [when Parliament finally emancipated them] were not permitted to practice their faith in public or in private because being Catholic was a crime.

"The Twelve Days of Christmas" was composed to be a "catechism song." It's purpose was to help young Catholics learn their faith when to be caught with anything showing adherence to Catholicism could get one imprisoned, hanged or drawn and quartered. The latter was a particularly gruesome punishment. It involved disembowelling a person [while still alive] after which the accused's limbs were tied to four large horses, and the victim was literally torn apart.

The song's various gifts represent different aspects of the Catholic faith. The "true love" mentioned in the song doesn't refer to an earthly suitor, but to God Himself. The "me" who receives the presents is every baptized person. The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ. In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge who feigns injury to distract predators from her helpless nestlings. This evokes our Savior's expression of sadness over the fate of Jerusalem: "Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered thee under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but thou wouldst not have it so..."

The song's other lyrics symbolize the following:

◗ 2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments

◗ 3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues

◗ 4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists

◗ 5 Golden Rings = The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the  "Pentateuch", which  gives the history of man's fall from grace.

◗ 6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation

◗ 7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven  sacraments

◗ 8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes

◗ 9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit

◗ 10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments

◗ 11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles

◗ 12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the  Apostle's Creed

[Update: 12/17/2015 - 3:00 PM See comments below.] Jeff Miller, [a.k.a. The Curt Jester] said:
Actually this is a total urban legend that keeps getting repeated.
The main clue is that this "hidden catechism" teaches nothing different than what the Anglicans of that time believed. At the time about the only point of doctrine that departed from Catholic doctrine was the Papacy. So there was zero reason to hide this if true.
Historically this interpretation is also very new.
To which a reader named Brother Aloysius responded:
I knew Father Stockert as a young novice. He was a devout and holy priest, not given to flights of fantasy. I realize there is controversy as to the origin and provenance of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” as a coded catechesis. The story has credence in part because numerous "Catechism songs" were written during the 270 year period of Protestant persecution of Catholics in England. The main objection of critics seems to be the lack of a paper trail. I find the snopes article, cited so often in the negative, to be particularly unpersuasive. The fact that Anglican and Catholic beliefs at the time were nearly identical [a fact many theologians would contest] is not dispositive that the “Twelve Days of Christmas” as a catechism song is an urban legend or a hoax. [For that matter, some have even suggested that Fr. Stockert never existed!]
Several Catholic organs of information and orthodoxy have published the story verbatim – which admittedly is not proof of its veracity.
Both commenters provide links in support of their respective positions.

In preparing this post, I encountered the snopes.com article casting doubt on the "Twelve Days of Christmas" as a "hidden catechism"that both commentors allude to. I published it nonetheless, largely for the reasons Brother Aloysius has stated. And I concur wholeheartedly with Brother's conclusion wherein he says:
Surely the readers of a blog of this quality can employ critical thinking and exercise their own due diligence in discerning the truth of the matter.
Deo gratias!
We remain grateful to our readership for your insights, comments, and support. Deo gratias indeed!

3 comments :

Jeff Miller said...

Actually this is a total urban legend that keeps getting repeated.

The main clue is that this "hidden catechism" teaches nothing different than what the Anglicans of that time believed. At the time about the only point of doctrine that departed from Catholic doctrine was the Papacy. So there was zero reason to hide this if true.

Historically this interpretation is also very new.

http://catholicism.about.com/od/Christmas/tp/What-Are-The-Twelve-Days-Of-Christmas.htm

http://www.snopes.com/holidays/christmas/music/12days.asp

Brother Aloysius said...

I knew Father Stockert as a young novice. He was a devout and holy priest, not given to flights of fantasy. I realize there is controversy as to the origin and provenance of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” as a coded catechesis. The story has credence in part because numerous "Catechism songs" were written during the 270 year period of Protestant persecution of Catholics in England. The main objection of critics seems to be the lack of a paper trail. I find the snopes article, cited so often in the negative, to be particularly unpersuasive. The fact that Anglican and Catholic beliefs at the time were nearly identical [a fact many theologians would contest] is not dispositive that the “Twelve Days of Christmas” as a catechism song is an urban legend or a hoax. [For that matter, some have even suggested that Fr. Stockert never existed!]

Several Catholic organs of information and orthodoxy have published the story verbatim – which admittedly is not proof of its veracity. Here are two:

http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/resources/advent/customs-and-traditions/the-history-of-the-twelve-days-of-christmas/

https://www.ewtn.com/library/HOMELIBR/TWELVDAY.TXT

See also Ann Ball’s A Handbook of Catholic Sacramentals, Our Sunday Visitor, 1991.

http://www.amazon.com/Handbook-Catholic-Sacramentals-Ann-Ball/dp/0879734485

Surely the readers of a blog of this quality can employ critical thinking and exercise their own due diligence in discerning the truth of the matter.

Deo gratias!

Fr. Akon Simine said...

I wish to associate myself with Brother Aloysius’ comments. It is telling that most detractors of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” as a “Catechesis Song” are Protestant affiliated or secular sources. I have only found one Catholic commentary in the negative. It would seem that the “Urban legend” smear against the “Twelve Days…” being an underground catechesis is an internet meme unto itself.

Thank you, Matthew for the excellent blog. Keep up the good work!