Meditations on the Catechetical Teaching of the Traditional English Christmas Carol
There are many explanations for the elaborate gifts “given” in this popular Christmas carol. Some claim that it is simply a fanciful song written for the enjoyment of children, others that it was a song of royalty flaunting the extravagant gifts a noble would give to his intended. And still others claim that it was written as a catechism for Roman Catholic youth in England following the 16th century Protestant Reformation. The carol appears to have been written in this Tudor period and could likely be such a teaching.
When the English Church broke away from Rome under King Henry VIII, Parliament issued an “Act of Uniformity” which made it mandatory for all citizens of England to practice the faith of the Church of England. This act was revoked under Queen Mary, Henry’s daughter by his first wife, a staunch Roman Catholic. When “Bloody” Mary’s half sister, Elizabeth, ascended the throne, she called for Parliament to reissue the Act of Uniformity, and the “Elizabethan Settlement” was enforced. All Englishmen would practice the English faith. The “practice” of Roman Catholicism was forbidden. But the Catholic faith could not be wiped out. Catholic parents continued to teach their children the principles of the faith, and this English carol may have been one of the ways they reinforced that faith in their children.
Whether the song was originally written for this purpose is not necessarily important. The song lends itself nicely to the primary teachings of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We can use it today to celebrate our faith, reminding ourselves and our children what we truly believe. If we take the time to review these teachings during Christmas, we will be better able to recall these truths throughout the year.
Each of the gifts represents an important tenet of the Christian faith. The “True Love” who gives the gifts is, as St. James tells us, the Father. He says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights.” (James 1:17) We are the beloved upon whom He lavishes these abundant riches.
Here is a list of the days, the gifts given, and what they represent:
Day Date Gift What it represents
1 Christmas Day Partridge in Pear Tree Jesus
2 December 26 Two Turtle Doves The 2 Testaments
3 December 27 Three French Hens Faith, Hope, Love
4 December 28 Four Calling Birds Four Gospels
5 December 29 Five Golden Rings The Torah
6 December 30 Six Geese a-Laying Six days Creation
7 December 31 Seven Swans Gifts of the Spirit
8 January 1 Eight Maids Milking Beatitudes
9 January 2 Nine Ladies Dancing Fruit of the Spirit
10 January 3 Ten Lords a-Leaping Commandments
11 January 4 Eleven Pipers Faithful Apostles
12 January 5 Twelve Drummers Apostles’ Creed
All of this concludes with the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. That feast is the celebration of Jesus being made manifest to the world through the Magi, and our giving of gifts in return to Him.
The image built in the song is one of a festival celebration of Christmas in a lordly English manor. As the days progress, the diverse elements needed for this elaborate feast are given. They begin with the basics. Essential components of the meal are provided, then items of decor, and finally the various forms of entertainment.
In the same way, the necessary elements of the faith are given, beginning with the basics. We begin with the primary element of the faith: Jesus. The Scriptures come next. The Holy Spirit and spiritual living follow. And finally, the song concludes with the Apostles themselves and the teaching of the Church in the Creed.
This joyous carol does represent a sound form of Christian catechism. Enjoy the season. Sing the song. Live your faith.