For many people, the Twelve Days of Christmas only represents an irritating song that seems to last forever. But those of us in liturgical traditions know that Christmas actually does not end on December 25. It begins on that day and lasts for twelve days until Epiphany on January 6.
And the song about that those 12 days may very well have been written as a metaphorical way to speak about the spiritual gifts that God reminds us of during this season. Could we use them as a way to encourage our faith journeys?
“On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree”: We begin here and most importantly because God – our true love – has given us Jesus Christ, the partridge, the incarnation of God in this world and the promise that God is with us always.
“Two turtle doves” – God has given us the Old and New Testaments. In God’s Word we hear how God loves us, how God works with us and within us, and how God calls us to be. We hear of God’s love in the stories of God’s people, in songs and prayers, in wisdom and in letters. Indeed, all the other gifts throughout the 12 days may be seen as a part of this second gift, a gift in which our lives of faith might take flight.
“Three French hens” – We thank God for the gift of God’s very self shown in the Trinity – Father (the one who created us), Son (the one who shows us how to live), and Holy Spirit (the one who moves and works within us). We also recall the words of Paul: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)
“Four calling birds” – We hear the story of God’s love in the story of Jesus in the four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
“Five golden rings” – We read in the five Books of Moses, known to our Jewish brothers and sisters as the Torah, about how God formed a people known as Israel, led them out of Egypt, and shaped them with the Law.
“Six geese a-laying” – We recall the creation story. We do not become concerned about whether these are six literal days. Rather, we learn from them how it shows that God created all things and God saw that “it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31)
“Seven swans a-swimming” – We remember the gift of the Holy Spirit, given to us in our baptism, and represented as seven gifts: “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence.” (adapting the words of Isaiah 11:2) We swim in these words and dive deep into these promises.
“Eight maids a-milking” – Jesus tells us what God values in the eight beatitudes in Matthew 5:3-12. These values nourish our souls as milk nourishes our bodies.
“Nine ladies dancing” – Paul speaks of nine fruits of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” (Galatians 5:22-23) By these fruits, our hearts are set to dancing.
“Ten lords a-leaping” – As a summary of what the Law represents, we remember the Ten Commandments. We remember them as a joy to live, especially as Jesus says that as we love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind and as we love our neighbors as ourselves, we fulfill all that the Law speaks of.
“Eleven pipers piping” – We remember the eleven apostles, the ones that remained after the betrayal of Judas and how their lives of faithfulness inspire our own lives of faithfulness.
“Twelve drummers drumming” — The church has gifted us with a summary of beliefs in the Apostles Creed, that tradition assigned twelve different points. By the drumbeats of our beliefs, by living out the God who created us, the Jesus who lived for us, and the Spirit that moves within us, we live our lives in faith.
So during these 12 days of Christmas, I encourage you to thank God for these 12 gifts. Unwrap them. Cherish them. Live by them. They have been given for you and for all the world.