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Thursday, 19 December 2013

Ten Lords a' leaping ...

There is one Christmas Carol that always puzzled me. Sure, it was fun to sing, and has a nice tune to go with it, but what do leaping lords, French hens, swimming swans, and especially the partridge in the pear tree have to do with Christmas?

The answer is that it was a way to memorise the tenets of the Roman Catholic (indeed the 'catholic') faith, and was composed during the years of the Protestant 'Presbyterianism' of Cromwell and the subsequent attempts to suppress the Roman Church in the British Isles. From 1558 until 1829, Roman Catholics in Britain and Ireland were forbidden to practice their faith openly. This carol was written as a catechism song for young Catholics, and its popularity among many 'Protestant' congregations has often amused me.

It has two levels of meaning: the surface meaning plus a hidden meaning known only to members of their church. Each of the things in the carol is a key word for a part of the Catechism which the children could remember. Thus -

  • -The partridge in a pear tree was Jesus Christ.
  • -Two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments.
  • -Three French hens stood for faith, hope and love.
  • -The four calling birds were the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke & John.
  • -The five golden rings recalled the Pentateuch or Law, the first five books of the Old Testament.
  • -The six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation.
  • -Seven swans a-swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit--Prophesy, Serving, Teaching,  Exhortation, Contribution, Leadership, and Mercy.
  • -The eight maids a-milking were the eight beatitudes.
  • -Nine ladies dancing were the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit--Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness,  Faithfulness,Gentleness, and Self Control.
  • -The ten lords a-leaping were the ten commandments.
  • -The eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful disciples.
  • -The twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in the Apostles' Creed.
So there is your history for today. I found it a fascinating way to teach something to children, right under the noses of the authorities rtying to prevent it. It is a lovely song, and it is a good choice for a Christmas Carol ... so pass it on if you wish.

Christmas is a Feast with an 'Octave'. It begins at sunset on the 24th December and continues until the Eve of the Epihany on January 6th. Now you'll be wondering how eight days (an Octave) became twelve. There are four 'Saints Days' in that period, starting with the Feast of St Stephen, followed by the Holy Innocents, then (for Anglicans) Thomas Beckett and the Circumcision of Christ. So, enjoy the twelve days of Christmas!

May I wish all my readers a very Merry Christmas and a fabulous year to come.

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