A Christmas mystery — 12 days worth

Three decades ago, Father Harold Stockert’s passion for history sent him digging through stacks of correspondence between French Jesuits and their embattled brethren across the English Channel.

It wasn’t easy being a Roman Catholic in Elizabethan England. It was, in fact, illegal and often downright dangerous. This Jesuit correspondence was particularly intense after the 1611 publication of the King James Version, when Catholics in England needed the help of the French in publishing a Catholic Bible.

“You bump into all kinds of interesting things when you read original documents,” said Stockert, who now serves at Saints Peter and Paul Byzantine Catholic Church in Granville, N.Y. “This correspondence included a lot of details about what life was like for Catholics in England. I mean, you did have Jesuits being hanged, drawn and quartered. People can look it up.”

One detail fascinated the priest, a reference to English Catholics using many symbolic songs and poems — some serious, some light-hearted – to help them cling to their faith. One children’s song may have been part of a dance or a game and focused on the season between Dec. 25 and Jan. 6, the Feast of the Epiphany.

It began: “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree.”

In the midst of his other research, Father Stockert took a few notes about “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and later wrote an article about the song for friends and parishioners. He posted this article – complete with documentary references – on an ecumenical computer site in 1982, back in the early days of online networks.

“The ‘true love’ mentioned in the song doesn’t refer to an earthly suitor, it refers to God Himself,” he wrote. “The ‘me’ who receives the presents refers to every baptized person. The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge which feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings.”

The turtle doves represented the Old and New Testaments, while the three French hens symbolized the virtues of faith, hope and charity. Four calling birds? The four evangelists and their Gospels. The five golden rings correspond to the “Pentateuch” that opens the Hebrew Bible. The six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation. The seven swans a-swimming represented the seven sacraments. Eight maids a milking? Eight beatitudes. Nine ladies dancing? Nine fruits of the Holy Spirit. Ten lords a-leaping? Ten Commandments. Finally, the 11 pipers represented the 11 faithful apostles and the 12 drummers the doctrines in the Apostle’s Creed.

Today, versions of this article dot the Internet, usually with no mention of the author, including Protestant versions linking the song to “persecuted Christians,” in general. And every year, this Christmas lesson circulates via e-mail. Some of these texts are much shorter than his original article and others include material that he did not write. Most importantly, none of these articles include his bibliographical references.

“I’ve got all kinds of people writing me demanding references for my work,” he said. “I wish I could give them what they want, but all of my notes were ruined when our church had a plumbing leak and the basement flooded.” Meanwhile, he said, his copy of the original article is on “a computer floppy disk that is so old that nobody has a machine that can read it, anymore.”

Meanwhile, the San Fernando Valley Folklore Society’s giant site (http://www.snopes.com ) dedicated to dissecting “urban legends” has declared that this account of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is clearly false. This site claims it is a secular song, probably with French roots. This “Twelve Days of Christmas” may also have become confused with a Christian song, which dates back to 1625, that is often called “In Those Twelve Days.”

It is also possible, said Father Stockert, that a French song was claimed by English Catholics or that the two songs were blended.

“I’m sure there are elements of legend in this,” he said. “But if it is a legend, it’s a legend that dates back to the days of Queen Elizabeth. Maybe somebody will go dig this all up again.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.