Tag Archives: Christmas Carol Countdown

Catechism or Kid’s Song – “The 12 Days of Christmas”

(This is my third installment in a series that explores our rich tradition of Christmas Carols and its rich history)

I myself was excited to start studying the history of this one, and I found a number of surprises.  At least to me they were.  For example I had no idea the 12 days of Christmas was an actual calendar set of days, after December 25th, which usually ends January 6th with a climactic feast called Ephipany.  It was an old Christian tradition dating back to Shakespeare’s time, and for you Shakespeare fanatics this comes at no surprise to you right?  The Twelfth Night?  (If you want to learn more about that tradition you can look up a pretty good article about it here.)

What really intrigued me was, what is up with all this fowl language.  Some of the first articles I read said that each bird or gift was a coded article that persecuted Catholics in 18th century England used to memorize the tenants of their faith with.  Honestly, I think I heard this before, and at first reaction, I believed it.  However after digging deeper, there is evidence to point in the direction that this carol was merely a kid’s song.  One of the more interesting articles said that during the twelve days of Christmas, children would sing this song in a sort of chorus; a child would sing the first verse, then the second child in the group would sing the second, and whoever couldn’t keep up would be out of the group.

At first I thought, here we go again, people just trying to put down traditions of the church.  Haters.  But I came across some good reasons as to why it wouldn’t be some sort of underground catechism (I’ll just list one for space sake); both Anglicans (the persecutors), and the Catholics (persecuted), believed in many common tenants that the song says Catholics needed to keep secret.  For example, partridge = Jesus, two French hens = New and Old Testament, etc.  These are tenants that are shared between denominations and would not require one to go underground.  Another real good indicator that it is false, is that this idea is actually a modern one.  First writings that purport this idea came as late as 1979, whereas the song first appears in 1780, and the tune even earlier than that.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we may just have a real good children’s song etched in our Christmas Carols history, which I am fine with.  It’s a lovely song, not much meaning at all anymore for me, but lovely still the same.  Images of birds I’ve never seen dance through my mind, as I then catch them and wrap them and give them to my wife.  I think I just imagine pheasants and pigeons, with funny tails.

Don’t go just yet, there’s more.  Some say that what might have happened is around the late 1700’s the song “The 12 Days of Christmas” might have been confused somehow with a traditional catechism type song called, “A New Dial” (or also known as “In Those Twelve Days” in some circles I guess).  Consider the lyrics below of the first six days:

What are they that are but one?
We have one God alone
In heaven above sits on His throne.

What are they which are but two?
Two testaments, the old and new,
We do acknowledge to be true.

What are they which are but three?
Three persons in the Trinity
Which make one God in unity.

What are they which are but four
Four sweet Evangelists there are,
Christ’s birth, life, death which do declare.

What are they which are but five?
Five senses, like five kings, maintain
In every man a several reign.

What are they which are but six?
Six days to labor is not wrong,
For God himself did work so long.

I suppose it is possible that the “The 12 Days of Christmas” could have been an evolution of this song into less religious lyrics.  However, I’m inclined to think though that this song, which came out about 100 years prior to “The 12 Days of Christmas”, in 1625, instead lent a catchy tune to a kids song…about birds I’ve never heard of.

So what to do now?  I feel like I just popped the fantasy bubble in some peoples minds that this song had a deep important underlying meaning.  To you, I’m deeply sorry.  But seriously, what to do.  Not sure, but I think I’m going to try singing it the way it was meant to be sung; in choruses in a group with children, and the one who can’t keep up, has to take a shot of that crazy Christmas drink with raw eggs.

Happy Caroling!

A Carol That Welcomed Sacred Skulls & Bones – “I Saw Three Ships”

(This is the second installment in a series where I will explore the rich history of music surrounding the holiday of Christmas)

This one may not be so popular with everyone, but maybe I’m just saying that because I only vaguely remember the melody, let alone the words.  I got reacquainted with it as we were playing it on our playlist of Christmas Carols, and a question was just not let my mind go; “What’s up with the three ships?”  Are they an allusion to the Trinity, but in the song they only mention Jesus and Mary.  Is it because a city’s savior in the form of a military squadron of three boats came sailing in that morning?

As history would have it, the three ships came bearing gifts on Christmas, but not any ol’ gift you would give your wife or sister.  It is thought the three ships were carrying the remains of the Biblical Magi (which is a word, by the way, that comes from Old Persian, magus, meaning sorcerer, referring to a highly revered caste of Zoroastrians, of which one of the magi probably came) spoken of in the Christmas narrative in the Bible.  In agreement with the medieval churches interesting infatuation with saintly remains, their skulls and the rest, were being transported to the Cologne Cathedral, after of course, being wrapped in beautiful bows and ribbons.  They were a gift from the Holy Roman Emperor Barbarossa to Cologne, as a gift after capturing Milan, which is where the bones were before.  So yes it’s a nice carol, but it was also a song dedicated to the arrival of some very important relics.

“But”, you may say, “the lyrics say the ships came into Bethlehem.”  One quick look at a map of Israel shows you that disappointingly the city of Bethlehem is very land-locked.  So, I’m not sure what to say.  Perhaps some Broadway genius decided to take a Christmas themed play and mixed in it with a dash of Peter Pan and his flying ship.  The world may never know the reason for this discrepancy.

Happy Caroling!

Christmas Carol Countdown – Be a More Informed Caroler (intro)

It’s December 1st today, and Christmas is just around the corner.  If you’re like me, as you’ve enjoyed singing carols year in and year out, you come across songs and lyrics and realize, “I have no idea what I’m singing about, but hey, it feels good to be a part of this tradition of music.”  Like who is “Good King Wencelass”, why are the “Three Ships” important, where did the “drummer boy” come in to the Christmas story, and what is up with all the ridiculous types of birds, like turtle doves, French hens, and partridges.

There is such a beautiful tradition of music surrounding our holiday of Christmas, and it is my goal this Christmas to be a better informed carol singer.  Long gone will the days be when as I sung a carol tune I would wish I knew the context of the song.

Join me as we explore together the beautifully rich tradition of music that stretches back to the time of Christ.  We will explore the backdrop to some well known carols that everyone is familiar with, and lesser known ones as well.