Friday, December 28, 2018


It happens every year around this time, so now seems as good a time as any to remind everyone that the popular myth now making the rounds again just isn’t true. In case you missed it, here’s what countless people believe and share on social media:  “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was written in England as one of the “catechism songs” to help young Catholics learn the tenets of their faith – a memory aid, when to be caught with… Read more

My comments: Even if the 12 Days of Christmas isn't a subversive way to preserve the Catholic Faith during Christmas, it is within our grand Catholic Tradition to spiritualize practical and secular things, to say the least.

The Advent Wreath, Christmas Trees, Halloween customs all were baptized and given Catholic meaning and spiritualized.

The same with various actions in the Mass, such as washing hands, cutting the wine with water, the use of incense. There was a practical need to wash hands after receiving the offerings from the congregation to include dirty things living and dead. The wine was strong and sour and needed to be cut with water,   people smelled pretty awful and often animal were in the great spaces of cathedrals and churches and so incense was like Fabreeze is today--a deodorant. 

So I'm sticking with the spiritualized content of the 12 Days of Christmas, although I have never liked the song even as a child, but I digress.


CFr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

Many "stories" grow up around things, such as this fanciful "explanation" of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Another one that I have heard has to do with the cloth that covered the face of Jesus being apart from the other burial cloths when Peter and John went to the tomb after Mary Magdalene said his body was not there. (Yesterday's Gospel reading)

So the tale goes: "In order to understand the significance of the folded napkin, you have to understand a little bit about Hebrew tradition of that day. The folded napkin had to do with the Master and Servant; every Jewish boy knew this tradition. When the servant set the dinner table for the master, he made sure that it was exactly the way the master wanted it. The table was furnished perfectly, and then the servant would wait, just out of sight, until the master had finished eating. The servant would not dare touch that table until the master was finished. Now if the master were done eating, he would rise from the table, wipe his fingers, his mouth, and clean his beard, and would wad up that napkin and toss it onto the table. The servant would then know to clear the table. For in those days, the wadded napkin meant, 'I'm done.' But if the master got up from the table, and folded his napkin, and laid it beside his plate, the servant would not dare touch the table, Because… The folded napkin meant, I'm coming back!"

The "ancient" origins of this over-spiritualization of the face cloth/napkin have been traced to the internet (!) of 2007. I recall hearing once or twice in Scripture classes in seminaries, "Not every mention of water in the Old Testament refers to Baptismn, and not every mention of wood refers to the Cross."

rcg said...

Similar codes exist today for signaling when the meal is finished or the diner is just on break.

As for the apocryphal story of the 12 Days, the verses came from somewhere, they could have been appropriated for other use by the English Catholics. Is there any reliable evidence of this? Appropriation and modification is common in folk art and music. Maybe we should say that the song “was used as a mnemonic to help young Catholics in those days.

John Nolan said...

There is rather more substance to the idea that the first verse of 'Adeste Fideles' is a coded Jacobite reference to the birth of Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) just before Christmas 1720, according to research carried out by Dr Bennett Zon, Professor of Music at Durham University.

'Fideles' refers to those who had remained loyal to the Catholic faith. 'Bethlehem' was Jacobite code for England, and 'Regem Angelorum' is pun on 'Regem Anglorum'.

To this day, fingerbowls are removed from mess tables before the loyal toast, since officers sympathetic to the exiled Stuarts would pass their glasses over them to drink the health of 'the King over the water'.

There's a neat little rhyme which sums up the attitude of many Tories at the time:

God bless the King, I mean the Faith's Defender;
God bless (no harm in blessing) the Pretender;
But who Pretender is, and who is King -
God bless us all! That's quite another thing!

Anonymous said...

There are no napkin "codes" for temporary absences from the table or the cessation of dining altogether.

Unless, of course, one is dining with HRM Elizabeth II. One DOES NOT leave the table unless one is at the point of death. And the meal is finished when Her Maj is finished.

rcg said...

Since John brought it up....

There a lot of tunes and ditties from that same basic era of about 250 years that had references to issues between Catholics and the government of Britain at various times. They were sufficiently obscure that by the time they made the trans-Atlantic crossing and rested in Appalachia for a while that their exact meaning was obscured, forgotten, or irrelevant. 'Breaking Up Christmas' was one such tune that had a strange title and even stranger lyrics, (Hooray Jake! Hooray John! Breakin' up Christmas all night long! Don't you remember? A long time ago, the old folks danced the doesey-do.), none of which seemed to have anything to do with Christmas until I found out it referred to the transition from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar and was traditionally played on 6 and 7 January. 'Cold Frosty Morning' refers to the battle of Culloden, and there are others that seem to indicate at least some Catholic bones to an otherwise Protestant region of the country. There are other lyrics that seem to be nonsense until discovering its ancestor, usually by accident, in Ireland, Scotland, the Shetlands, or English folk music. Even then I still require an extensive explanation of the story and history to understand the lyrics in any historical sense. John's toast seems to be a relatively dignified echo of the sentiments contained in 'Cam Ye O're Frae France?" which is actually calls out historical figures, taunts the King and insults his family and even his mode of transportation in a coded verse sung at breakneck speed.

John Nolan said...

The Battle of Culloden (16 April 1746) was not fought on a 'cold frosty morning' but on a damp rainy one.

The transition from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar was in September 1752 and eleven days had to be lost from that month. This provoked rioting since labourers were paid by the day but rents were still due quarterly. The government responded by postponing the quarter days by eleven days.

Prior to this, the New Year began on Lady Day, 25 March. That explains the anomaly whereby the fiscal year still begins on 6 April (25 March plus eleven days).

rcg said...

I bet they wish they had thought of “Foggy Dew”.