One of the interesting things about the site Snopes.com, those Web sleuths who uphold or debunk strange assertions, is that you discover some things you didn’t even know were open to question.
Case in point: the classic holiday carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas. This, of course, is the song that bespeaks the gifts given by a “true love” between Christmas and Epiphany (Jan. 5).
No way that song could stir up a controversy, right?
A coded catechism
According to an urban legend that began in the late 1990s, the song was created by the Catholic Church as a coded reference to important articles of the Christian faith, says Snopes.
According to this claim, The Twelve Days of Christmas was written in England during the time (1558-1829) when Catholics in that country had to step lightly or face persecution until the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed in 1829.
The song was first published in England in 1780.
A way around the law
The legend goes that Catholics were prohibited from any practice of their faith, either private or public. That is way over the top, according to most British historians who say the government’s persecution or toleration of Catholics waxed and waned during that 271-year span.
Nevertheless, the claim about The 12 Days of Christmas is that it was written as a “catechism song” to help young Catholics learn the tenets of their faith by an easy memory device, so the story continues. The gifts sung about are actually codes to the teachings of the Catholic faith.
• The “true love” refers to God.
• The “me” who receives each gift is every baptized person.
• The “partridge in a pear tree” is Jesus. “
• The “2 turtle doves” are the Old and New Testaments.
• The “3 French hens” are faith, hope, and charity.
• The “4 calling birds” are the four Gospels and/or the four evangelists.
• The “5 golden rings” are the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Old Testament.
• The “6 geese a-laying” are the six days of creation.
• The “7 swans a-swimming” are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, or the seven sacraments.”
• The “8 maids a-milking” are the eight beatitudes.
• The “9 ladies dancing” are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit.”
• The “10 lords a-leaping” are – what else – the ten commandments.
• The “11 pipers piping” are the eleven faithful apostles.
• The “12 drummers drumming” are the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed.
Interesting, no? Sounds plausible, yes?
Not so fast
Enter the urban legend detectives of Snopes who throw water on all this by noting, “There is absolutely no documentation or supporting evidence for this claim whatsoever, other than mere repetition of the claim itself.”
They point out the claim apparently started around 1998, “making it as likely an invention of modern-day speculation rather than historical fact.”
A key flaw in the claim/theory, according to the Snopes snoops, is that “all of the religious tenets supposedly preserved by the song (with the possible exception of the number of sacraments) were shared by Catholics and Anglicans alike.
So why code those articles of faith if all Christians in England believed in them?
Further, the song contains no mentions of the key points of differences that DID divide Catholic and Anglican England. For example, there is no coded reference for the Pope himself. And there is no hidden euphemism for the practice of Confession.
The list of problems goes on (and you can add the fact that some textual evidence indicates it was originally a French song), but you get the idea.
A high-tech spotlight
What I find fascinating is the way the Internet, which didn’t even exist for most of us 20 years ago, can be used to shed light on events, documents – and even songs – which occurred or were written hundreds of years ago.
So next time you hear The Twelve Days of Christmas, just enjoy it for what it is. And be happy for the lovers.