Reason for the season: Religious leaders share meaning behind well-known holiday '12 Days of Christmas' song

Where'd those other 11 days go? For most people who celebrate Christmas, it's the most wonderful time of the year, right? But when exactly does that time as a spiritual season begin, especially the 12 days of the ever popular and winsome song?

In our mobile and tech-dependent society of instant gratification made possible through our gadgets and gizmos — Skype, Wiki and iPhone's Siri — it seems like many people are happy enough to culminate the frenzy of spending that starts after Thanksgiving, with family gatherings and presents opened on Dec. 25.

Then instantly, it's over.

Indeed, on the first day of Christmas, after "my true love came to me," it seems that the other 11 days have been stolen by the Grinch and many people are content to forget all about those three French hens, eight milking maidens and that partridge in a pear tree.

So just what is the meaning behind the 12 days of Christmas? And why are most of us in the dark about the religious meaning of those 12 days?

Father Russell Ruggiero, the parochial vicar for San Marco Catholic Church on Marco Island, says that the 12 days of Christmas are still celebrated, but in a spiritually, emotionally distorted and unhealthy way.

"People will bombard stores and the Internet (on Dec. 26) in hopes to obtain (discounted) gifts for the next Christmas or another holiday. We prepare, prepare, prepare to the point where there is no spirit to celebrate and engage in that which we are preparing for. I believe that, in some sense, society-at-large has lost its value of lingering. We want it, whatever 'it' is, and we want it now," he said.

Ruggiero believes that the true spirit of Christmas may be lost and adds that he encourages people of whatever faith and spiritual traditions to keep Christmas "alive" for the days following Dec. 25.

Father Roy Allison, of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Bonita Springs, explained that while most everyone has heard the melodious Christmas carol "The 12 Days of Christmas," the song was not written for the church, and it is simply a myth.

But he added, "The 12 days of Christmas are the days we celebrate that the Christ child came into the world as both God and man. I think we miss this during the contemporary Christmas season. It's like when the tree comes down and the kids are already bored with their toys, and the day is over, we move on. The material part of the season is what causes us to lose focus on the true meaning of the season."

Sister Christa Cunningham, director of Adult Faith Formation at St. William Catholic Church in Naples, gets a chuckle out of the song and she honors the true meaning of the 12 days.

"From 1538 until 1829, Roman Catholics in England were not permitted to practice their faith openly. Someone during that era wrote this carol as a catechism song for young Catholics. It has two levels of meaning: the surface meaning plus a hidden meaning known only to members of their church. Each element in the carol has a code word for a religious reality which the children could remember." (See box for explanation.)

The common belief among these spiritual leaders is that the actual 12 days of Christmas begin on Christmas Day, Dec. 25, and continue through Jan. 6, which is the eve of epiphany. In liturgical Christianity, epiphany is the season which commemorates the visit of the Magi, often referred to as kings or wise men, to the infant Jesus.

Since the Bible says that the Magi brought three gifts (gold, frankincense and myrrh) to Jesus, some Christian traditions assume that there were three wise men. There is no actual scriptural reference to how many kings came to visit Jesus.

In the Hispanic Catholic culture, Jan. 6 is widely celebrated as the Day of the Three Kings, or just the Day of the Kings. Gift-giving is often reserved for this day instead of Christmas Day or Christmas Eve.

In some communities, 12 days of Christmas gifts are given during the period between Christmas Day and the beginning of epiphany.

"The 12 Days of Christmas" decoded:

n The partridge in a pear tree was Jesus Christ.

n Two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments.

n Three French hens stood for faith, hope and love.

n The four calling birds were the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

n The five golden rings recalled the Torah or Law, the first five books of the Old Testament.

n The six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation.

n Seven swans a-swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit (prophesy, serving, teaching, exhortation, contribution, leadership and mercy.)

n The eight maids a-milking were the eight beatitudes.

n Nine ladies dancing were the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.)

n The 10 lords a-leaping were the 10 commandments.

n The 11 pipers piping stood for the 11 faithful disciples.

n The 12 drummers drumming symbolized the 12 points of belief in the Apostles' Creed.

— provided by Sister Cunningham

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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