Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

Signs, Symbols & Traditions of the Season: Carols

What would the Christmas season be like without Johnny Mathis’ voice filling the room (Yes, my wife is a huge fan)? Songs are  very important to our liturgies and culture. Some would say they are inextricably linked together. In fact, Plato and Socrates warned that children should not be exposed to the music of a culture until their moral formation was complete. Plato said 19 while Socrates said 22. It is true that you can gauge the morality of a society (and by extension its members) by the music it creates and listens to.

Christmas songs today are usually referred to as carols from the Old English carolen meaning to “sign joyfully” (This of course is from the Greek choraulein, a ring dance with flutes). History reports that carols go all the way back to fifth-century Latin hymns. Modern Christmas carols trace their origin back to thirteenth-century Italy introduced by the Poverello himself – St. Francis. Under his influence and devotion to the Nativity, Christmas carols spread and flourished throughout Europe.

Christmas caroling in the American colonies is an example of the patrimony given to us by the English. In the late-1800’s, caroling became popular in the Beacon Hill district of Boston. At the turn of last century, St. Louis carolers would serenade homes decorated with a candle in the window.

Today, most of the good spiritual carols have been forgotten with exception of those hymns we find in our liturgies. Due to the growing secular culture, schools prohibit carols that have anything to do with religion. For this reason, The Twelve Days of Christmas is my favorite carol. I am elated that the schools continue to promote the kids singing this song. One day, they will discover that they have been catechizing their youth for us. Then we will simply fill in the blanks and the truth will sent them free.

As you may know, the Catholic Church was illegal and forbidden for 271 years in England. Queen Elizabeth I’s reign of England in 1558  inaugurated a complete outlawing of the Latin Rite Church. This included all devotions, liturgies and outward expressions of the faith. Queen Elizabeth promulgated various penal laws against the Church including:

  • Mass was forbidden and punishable by being hung, drawn, and quartered for returning and offering Mass.
  • Priests were exiled from the Kingdom and were threatened with high treason.
  • Catholics hiding a priest in the home, or allowing him to celebrate Mass, would also be charged with high treason.
  • Catholic citizens were not allowed to vote, to hold property, to be witnesses in court, or to have weapons.
  • Catholics who did not attend Protestant services were charged a fine and often imprisoned.
  • All Catholic schools were closed and catechesis was forbidden.
  • Public officials were required to take an oath denouncing the Pope and the dogma of transubstantiation.

King George IV, in 1829, reluctantly signed the Emancipation Bill which granted political and religious freedom to Catholics. All laws were repealed with the one exception that the King or Queen of the United Kingdom cannot be a Latin Rite Catholic – even today. Justice compels me also to share that this bigotry was enforced with various intensities depending upon who was reigning.

Note: The same penal laws that were enforced for 271 years were enforced in Virginia until after the Revolutionary War. Under Old Ironsides ,otherwise known as Oliver Cromwell (1642-60), the Puritan Parliament even outlawed the celebration of Christmas. We should also note that the Commonwealth throughout its history has traditionally been anti-Catholic. And yet, Catholics are flourishing here in the Old Dominion.

The Holy Spirit inspired a solution within the hearts of English Catholics. These Catholic families composed and then taught our faith through a simple song, The Twelve Days of Christmas. Father Saunders, Pastor of Our Lady of Hope Church in Potomac Falls, Virginia has written a fantastic explanation of the not so “common” carol The Twelve Days of Christmas:

… the song The Twelve Days of Christmas was written in England using seemingly secular images or symbols to help catechize children in the faith. The “true love” mentioned in each stanza does not refer to an earthly suitor, but to Almighty God. The “me” to whom the gifts are presented refers to any baptized Catholic. The purpose of the repetition is not only for the sake of pedagogy, but also emphasizes God’s continual renewal of His gifts to mankind.

The partridge in a pear tree is Christ. In nature, a mother partridge will feign injury to lure predators away from her defenseless nestlings. In the same way, our Lord protects us, vulnerable human beings, from Satan. The pear tree symbolizes the salvation of mankind, just as the apple tree symbolizes Adam and Eve’s Fall from Grace.

Two turtle doves represent the Old and New Testaments. Also, Jewish couples of modest income offered two turtle doves instead of the customary lamb as a sacrifice to God when they presented their newborn child in the Temple. Interestingly, our Blessed Mother Mary and St. Joseph offered a sacrifice of two turtle doves for the presentation of our Lord (cf. Luke 2:22-24).

Known for their beauty and rarity, the three French hens signify both the gifts of the Magi (gold, frankincense, and myrrh), and the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.

The four calling birds are associated with both the four evangelists and their gospels– Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; the four major prophets– Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel; and the four cardinal virtues– prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.

Five golden rings has a two-fold significance. A ring, or a circle, has no beginning or end but is continuous. Thereby, the ring reminds us of both God’s eternity — His permanent, faithful, and continuous love for us– and the circle of faith– God’s love for us, our love for Him, and our love for our neighbors. Moreover, gold is a pure element, and God’s love is a pure, unconditional love. The number five also signifies the first five books of the Old Testament — the Pentateuch or Torah (the books of law for the Jewish people).

The six geese a-laying represent the six days of creative work recounted in Genesis.

The seven swans a-swimming continues the Genesis theme. In Judaism, seven was a number of perfection. God’s plan included not just the six days of creating but also the seventh day of rest; we in turn must not forget to make Sunday a holy day by worshiping God at Mass, spending time with our loved ones, and relaxing. Moreover, the seven swans a-swimming refers to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven corporal works of mercy, the seven spiritual works of mercy, and the seven deadly sins.

The eight maids a-milking signifies the eight beatitudes and, at that time in our Church, the eight times during the year prescribed for the faithful to receive Holy Communion.

The nine ladies dancing are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit and the nine choirs of angels.

The Ten Commandments are represented by the 10 lords a-leaping.

Eleven pipers piping are the eleven faithful apostles at the time of the resurrection and ascension. (Remember that Judas, one of the Twelve, betrayed our Lord and committed suicide.)

Finally, the number 12 for the Jewish people represented completion and fullness. Therefore, the 12 drummers drumming are the twelve minor prophets, the twelve precepts of the Apostles Creed (still the structure of the first part of the Catechism), the 12 apostles (the original 11 plus St. Matthias who replaced Judas), and the 12 tribes of Israel.

One last note. The song O Come, O Come Emmanuel, while a common Advent song for Sunday liturgies, is meant to be sung during the O Antiphons which take place from December 17-24. Regardless, this is a meditation on salvation history and the person of the Christ.

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