The Twelve Days of Christmas

A Partidge in a Pear Tree by Chris Buzelli

This message was offered as an interactive sermon on December 30, 2012. It was great fun guessing what each gift might stand for and a light hearted way to encourage all of us to know what we believe as Christians. After all, we live what we believe and we can’t share what we don’t know. – Lisa <><

PS- Click for the 12 Days of Christmas Worksheet we used as a bulletin insert for making guesses and taking notes.

Let’s begin with a Christmas quiz.
1. How long is Christmas?
a)      One day- Christmas Day
b)      Two days- Christmas Eve and Christmas Day
c)      Twelve days, like the song
d)      A couple of months starting when the decorations go up in Target in mid October

2. How many presents are given in the song the 12 days of Christmas?

3. Is the song the 12 days of Christmas a secret way of teaching the basics of Christianity?

1. For centuries, much of Christendom has celebrated Christmas as a season of 12 days. (Easter is a season, too. Its 50 days long.) Some celebrate the season of Christmas beginning Christmas Day through January 5, the eve of Epiphany (the next season in the Christian year) or December 26 through January 6.

2. There are 364 gifts given in the song, almost one for each day of the year. The trick is to remember the song is cumulative. For example, on day five you receive the five golden rings, plus four more calling birds, three more French hens, two more turtle doves, and another partridge in a pear tree. Most of the gifts are birds and people. Christians are against human trafficking, so please do not give people as gifts.

3. Probably not. Here’s where the idea came from. The song was written during a time of bloody religious persecution in England, between the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. When the Catholics were in power, they would kill the Protestants and visa versa. The idea is that the song was a hidden catechism used by Catholics to teach their children the faith when the Protestants were in power. The theory doesn’t hold much water since the doctrines associated with the song would have been held in common by both Catholics and Protestants. The disputed doctrines are not a part of the song.

Even so, the song remains a great checklist for the key understandings of the Christian faith. For example, who might be represented by the generous, loving gift giver? Scripture is clear that God is our True Love (1 John 4:7-21) and the Giver of every good gift. (James 1:17)

So what might the gifts stand for? Here are a few possibilities:

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me a partridge in a pair tree
The first gift on the first Christmas was Jesus, the Son of God, the Word of God made flesh and blood. (John 3:16-17) The partridge and Jesus Christ are similar because both are ready to die in order to defend their children. A partridge in a pair tree could be Jesus on the cross.

On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me two turtledoves.
There are many possibilities, including:

  • Adam and Eve- the origin story of how sin entered the world (Genesis 3)
  • The Old and New Testaments- the two main parts of the Bible
  • The dual nature of Jesus Christ- This is a key Christian understanding, that Jesus was fully human and fully divine simultaneously.
  • The two thieves on the cross- Jesus was crucified between two thieves. One chose to believe and the other rejected Christ. (Luke 23:32-43)

My favorite possibility ties the birds to the Christmas story. (Luke 2:22-24) When Jesus was around 40 days old, he was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem by his parents for the customary offerings for a first born son. Because Mary and Joseph were poor, they would have made the prescribed humbler offering, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons. Mary would have gone through a woman’s purification rites following a birth at the same time.

On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me three French hens.
The number three also has several possibilities:

  • The Trinity- Christians understand God to be mysteriously One and yet Three. God may thus be referred to as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit or our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.
  • Jesus rose from the dead on day 3
  • Jesus’ inner circle of followers was Peter, James and John. They were the first leaders of the early church following Jesus’ return to heaven.

My favorite possibility is again tied to the Christmas story. (Matthew 2:1-12) A year or so after his birth, Jesus was visited by Magi from the east. We don’t know how many Magi made the long trip, but we do know how many gifts they brought, three. Three expensive French hens to match three expensive exotic gifts. Gold was the most precious of all metals, given because Jesus is King of kings. Frankincense was used to make incense, given because Jesus is the Great High Priest. Myrrh was an expensive spice used for burials, given because Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life.

On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me four calling birds.
The four calling birds remind us of the four Gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These writers of the first four books of the New Testament proclaimed the testimony of Jesus’ life and teachings. Like birds calling out with loud and distinctive voices, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John spread abroad the news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. They called people to faith in Jesus as their Savior. – Helen Haidle, The Real 12 Days of Christmas

John 20:30-31 NRSV
Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me, five golden rings.
Gold rings remind us of weddings. The rings symbolize the reverence of the covenant established between the couple in the sight of God. The covenant is like gold, valued and precious. It is like a ring, made with the intention to be without end.

The five golden rings most likely represent the first five books of the Bible, the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. They are treated with great reverence and treasured by Jews and Christians alike. In these books we find the creation story, the first covenants God made with God’s people, and the story of God freeing God’s people from slavery in Egypt.

Psalm 119:103-105 NRSV
How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way. Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.

On the sixth day of Christmas my true love gave to me, six geese a laying.
Eggs remind us of new life. (It’s one of the reasons we color Easter Eggs) Six + new life = the six days of creation. God spoke into the nothing. That Word was so powerful and creative it brought forth a world of astounding beauty and diversity. And God said it was good.

Psalm 148:1-5 NRSV
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host! Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens! Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created.

On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me seven swans a swimming.
Seven swans might symbolize the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit listed in Romans 12:6-8. (There are 10-20 more spiritual gifts found in other parts of the Bible.)  Every follower of Christ is empowered by the Holy Spirit with one or more spiritual gifts. Through these gifts we are transformed, like ugly ducklings into birds of grace. No one person has every gift. This reminds us how much we need God and each other. Spiritual gifts in combination and in action are a thing of great beauty and power, bringing glory to God and blessing to others.

On the eighth day of Christmas my true love gave to me eight maids a milking.
Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount with eight foundational teachings often called the Beatitudes. (Matthew 5:3-12) Jesus’ teaching nourishes and strengthens our souls in the same way mother’s milk sustains an infant. Jesus’ teaching is foundational in the same way animal milk is a foundational food in many cultures.

1 Peter 2:2-3 NRSV
Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

On the ninth day of Christmas my true love gave to me nine ladies dancing.
Earlier we were reminded of spiritual gifts, now it’s time for the Fruit of the Spirit. The nine ladies remind us of the nine different character traits the Holy Spirit produces in the lives of God’s faithful: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. (Galatians 5:22-23) The Holy Spirit makes our character, our motivation, our very being, new. This is worthy of great celebration.

On the tenth day of Christmas my true love gave to me ten lords a leaping.
Lords are men of authority with the power to establish rules and command their compliance. The lords a leaping symbolize God’s ten basic laws, otherwise known as the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 20:3-17) It is impossible in our own strength to keep God’s law perfectly. God’s law is a gift because it reminds us we cannot save ourselves. We all need a savior.

On the eleventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me eleven pipers piping.
Eleven pipers could represent the eleven apostles who were chosen by Jesus and remained faithful to him. (There were originally 12 apostles before Judas chose to betray Jesus.) Like children joyfully following a piper, these disciples followed Jesus and encouraged others to follow him as well. Jesus’ offer of forgiveness and new life is a Good News tune of great hope and joy.

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me twelve drummers drumming .
Just as drummers beat out a loud, steady rhythm for marchers to follow, so the Apostles’ Creed sets forth the beliefs of those who call themselves followers of Jesus Christ. The twelve drummers represent the twelve vital Christian beliefs as stated in the Apostles’ Creed.  – Helen Haidle, The Real 12 Days of Christmas

1. I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth;
2. And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord:
3. who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
4. suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried;
5. the third day he rose from the dead;
6. he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
7. and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.
8. I believe in the Holy Spirit,
9. the holy universal church, the communion of saints,
10. the forgiveness of sins,
11 the resurrection of the body,
12. and the life everlasting. Amen.

So how did you do? Maybe you had never heard of the Torah or the Beatitudes or some other key Christian belief. No worries. The word disciple means student. Followers of Jesus are lifelong learners. I may have a seminary degree, but I still have so much to learn. I still need to read my Bible and meet with others to grow in faith. We all do. What group will you join? What’s your devotional plan? What steps will you take this New Year to grow your faith?

A huge thank you to Helen Haidle, author of The Real 12 Days of Christmas, for inspiring this blog post.

For more work by today’s featured artist, Chris Buzelli, click here

For another blog post on gift giving, click here

Know you are always welcome at our congregation, Community United Methodist Church in DeBary, FL. We worship on Sundays at 8am, 9:20am, and 11am. Dress casual and bring the kids.

For more information on the scripture translation, art and the use of this message in other settings, please refer to the copyright information page

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