Our psalm today seems especially appropriate for a Christmas Day celebration. It’s full of exclamation points as the author joyfully invites everything and everyone to join in praising God: angels and the heavens they occupy; the moon, the sun, and all the other stars; everything the weather can throw at us—yes, including the snow, frost and stormy winds; every creature that flies, creeps, and swims; people of all ages and stations. As I read through this psalm with Christmas music playing in the background, it occurred to me that all the author needed to complete his list was a partridge in a pear tree.
Once I had that song in my head, it seemed like I started seeing different versions of its gift list everywhere. The banking company PNC uses it to produce its annual “Christmas Price Index.” This is a calculation of how much it will cost you to purchase all the items listed in the song. You’d be a true love, indeed, if you delivered on all these gifts. So, if you’re still in the mood to do some shopping, you can purchase all of the items on the list, from the drummers to the partridge, for a mere $45,523.27, up about 10.5% from last year.
The food editor of the “Toledo Blade” once used the list as the inspiration for a Christmas buffet menu. Here’s what the song lyrics suggested to her: turkey drumsticks, a dish made of tomatoes and peppers, Lord Baltimore cake, a custard torte with ladyfingers, glasses of milk, Swanson’s TV dinners, roast goose, onion rings, Dove chocolates (those are the calling birds), Cornish game hens with French seasonings, turtle candy, and a green salad with blue cheese, dried cranberries, and (of course) pears. No word on the partridge; she must have thought there was enough poultry on the menu already. She also didn’t mention how much this feast would cost or provide any recipes, so you’d be on your own there.
Then there was the “Wizard of Id” comic strip where the wizard compiled his own list on the day after Christmas. It began “12 pounds on my belly, 11 hundred dollars, 10 points on my driver’s license, 9 strands of broken Christmas lights, and 8 notes of apology for a Christmas party incident.” When his wife asked him what he was doing, he replied that he was reviewing his “Twelve Debts of Christmas.”
The words of the song were first published in 1780 as a poem and memory game for children, and people have attached various meanings to the gift ever since. Some people thought that each gift corresponded with a particular month, with a related food or sport or the weather for that month. In 1979, a Canadian hymn scholar named Hugh McKellar theorized that the lyrics were intended to help Catholic children learn about their faith when it was illegal to be a practicing Catholic in England, in the years between 1500 and 1800. This theory has absolutely no basis in fact; the scholar admitted that himself. But it’s still an interesting list.
- “Twelve lords a-leaping” are the twelve basic beliefs of the Christian Church that are included in the traditional Apostles’ Creed.
- “Eleven pipers piping” are the eleven Apostles who remained faithful after Judas betrayed Jesus.
- “Ten ladies dancing” are the Ten Commandments.
- “Nine drummers drumming” are the traditional nine levels (or choirs) of angels. England was very class-conscious in the 1700s, so hierarchy was important.
- The “eight maids a-milking” are the Eight Beatitudes. (If you look them up in Matthew, it looks like there are nine, but the last verse is not considered a beatitude.)
- The “seven swans a-swimming” were the Catholic Church’s seven sacraments, but we need to adapt them for United Methodists. We can start with our own two sacraments of Baptism and Communion, then we can add the five additional spiritual practices that John Wesley prescribes: public worship of God, reading or hearing the preaching of the Word, prayer, studying the Scriptures, and fasting or abstinence. That gives us our seven United Methodist “swans.”
- The “six geese a-laying” are the six days of creation.
- The “five golden rings” are the first five books of the Old Testament, called the Torah.
- The “four calling birds” are the four Gospels.
- The “three French hens” represent the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
- The “two turtle doves” represent the fact that Jesus was both human and divine.
- And, finally, the “partridge” is Jesus himself, and the “pear tree” is the cross—a gift given to us by the grace of the one who loves us best and who, by rights, should be our one true love.
Attaching Christian meaning to something secular goes back to the earliest days of the Church. Baptism and the Communion meal were very similar to the rites of other Greek and Roman religious cults. The book of Acts tells us that, when Paul taught the people of Athens, he used the statues of their idols to help explain our God to them. Most of our treasured Christmas traditions like gift-giving and parties, decorating with greenery and lights, and paying special attention to charity were all part of Roman religious observances as well.
Even the date of Christmas is borrowed from the Romans. Of course, we don’t know the exact date or even the exact year when Jesus was born. But December 25th was originally the date when the Romans celebrated the birth of Mithras, their god of the sun. Coming as it did with the return of longer days, the date offered Christians a way to celebrate and teach about the Light that had come into the world in Christ Jesus. So, perhaps as early as the year 273, church leaders commandeered December 25th as the day when Christians would celebrate the birth of Jesus. We’re in good company when we find a way to use a secular Christmas song, which everyone knows, as a way to help us better understand our faith and share it with others.
One of the beautiful things about our faith is that, while we believe that the most perfect revelation of God is through Jesus, we can also see something of God’s nature in everything around us. Nothing is outside God’s reign, and that includes wreaths and Christmas trees and popular Christmas songs that aren’t explicitly Christian.
At Christmas, we celebrate the Incarnation, when God took on a human form in Jesus. God came to us in a material body, just like our own, in order to make the invisible things of the spirit visible. In Jesus, God made it possible for our finite human minds to comprehend the infinite. The Incarnation of God in Jesus showed that the spiritual and the material aren’t opposites of each other but complements to each other. God showed us that spiritual holiness can be expressed in our material lives. Even the Chrismon on the bulletin pictures this joining of divine and earthly: above the earthly bed of baby Jesus is an arc called a nimbus, a symbol of the Jesus’ divinity and sinlessness.
If we take this pairing of the spiritual and the material to heart, we can find expressions of God’s nature everywhere. We have no better example of this than in the Christmas story itself. In the stable, we see that holiness can be found anywhere, not just in designated, ornate buildings. In the animals that surrounded the Holy Family, we see that God includes all of creation in God’s plan of salvation. In the shepherds, we are reminded that holiness is not limited to the rich and famous, or even to the mainstream middle class, but can just as easily be found among the poor and the dispossessed, and that God puts the least and the last first. The manger, a feeding trough for animals, held an infant who would become for us the Bread of Life. And, that tiny newborn body—the ten perfect fingers and toes, the soft, vulnerable place on his skull, and the downy hair—showed us how precious God believes we are, in all our physicality and human frailty.
Looking for signs of our invisible God in the visible things of our world is called “living incarnationally.” When we live incarnationally, we connect our faith with everything we do. We take seriously Paul’s words: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” When we bind up our worship of God in all that we do, we find God’s footprints everywhere we go. We find God’s fingerprints on everything we see. We find God’s voice in everything we hear, even in a silly song like “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The more intentional we are about connecting the spiritual and the material aspects of our lives, the better we come to understand that Jesus, the baby whose birth we joyfully celebrate today, “is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” in our world. And that is a gift worth singing about. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young