'The 12 Days of Christmas' offers lessons for the season

A popular Christmas song represents the Christian calendar of the 12 days of the festival starting on Dec. 26 and lasting until Jan. 6. In 1780, a song was published in England called "The 12 days of Christmas." It was a musical game for children.

The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes states the lyrics as follows in the earliest attested version of this folk song:

"The 12th day of Christmas, my true love sent to me, 12 lords a-leaping, 11 pipers piping, 10 ladies dancing, nine drummers drumming, eight maids a-milking, seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying, five gold rings, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree." Many variations move around the last four items in differing order.

A Catholic scholar, Father Hal Stockert, believes the song may have been used during religious persecution as a way to teach children. From 1538 until 1829 it was a crime in England to be Catholic. People identified as Catholic were hanged. This song may have been used in code to communicate religious teaching in the Catholic underground movement.

Decoding the song can help us remember what Christmas is about. The True Love who gives the gifts is our Heavenly Father, who shares precious resources for our soul. The partridge in the tree is protective like Jesus, because the bird will perch there to divert attention away from her little ones.

The two turtle doves are the Old and New Testament. The three French hens are the virtues of faith, hope and charity. The four calling birds are the four Gospels telling us about the ministry of Jesus. The five gold rings are the first five books of the Bible. The six geese a-laying recall the Lord's six days of creation. The seven swans a-swimming are the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The eight maids a-milking are the eight main teachings of Jesus called Beatitudes. The nine ladies dancing are the nine fruits of the Spirit. The 10 lords a-leaping are the 10 Commandments. The 11 pipers piping are the 11 faithful disciples. The 12 drummers drumming represent the Apostles' Creed.

When hearing this song, may we ponder the priceless meaning of Jesus' birth. In 1984, the PNC bank estimated the cost of giving the 12 gifts at $12,623.10. The bank's figure for these gifts in 2013 is $107,300. Of course the lasting values represented by the song are beyond purchase.

During this season, may we, like the nine ladies, dance with the Spirit's fruit by extending to all: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Our True Love gives us these to enrich us. The 12 don't have batteries nor require assembly. They come with instructions how to use the gifts to build a noble life. These are not complex but are “to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Finding faith, significance in 'The 12 Days of Christmas'