Today in Chapel, middle and upper school students celebrated Epiphany during our 12 Days of Christmas service. In honor of the late Barbara Meier, who taught journalism at ESD for 30 years and led this service each year, current journalism students presented the meaning behind the famous song.
In case you are curious, each of the 12 gifts is deeply rooted in symbolism and faith.
According to today’s Chapel readings, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is about a generous benefactor who loved to give. Without ever using God’s name, “my true love” refers to the most supreme giver, God. The repetition of the verses represents God’s ongoing gifts and blessings that continue to flow. The “me” being all those baptized into the faith.
The first gift is a partridge in a pear tree. The original gift of Christmas is Jesus, so the partridge represents Jesus. Partridges were known as valiant birds, willing to fight to the death to defend their young. The bird’s readiness to die made it an ancient symbol of Christ and his holy sacrifice. The pear tree represents the cross on which Jesus died.
The second gift is two turtle doves. These represent both the Old and New Testaments. They also are biblical references to the two doves Mary and Joseph offered for sacrifice in the Temple, as was the Jewish law.
The third gift is three French hens. French hens were valuable poultry during the 1500s—only the most wealthy could afford them. These costly birds symbolized the three valuable gifts given to Jesus by the Magi—gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The fourth gift is four calling birds, likely blackbirds, which represent the four gospel writers—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These writers proclaimed the testimony of Jesus’ life and teachings. Like birds calling out in distinctive voices, the gospel writers spread the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
The fifth gift is five golden rings. Gold rings are among the most valuable treasures. The number five represents the five books of the Torah, or the first five books of the Old Testament—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers. These sacred writings were (and still are) treated with great reverence and considered worth more than gold because they tell the stories of God’s creation and the beginning of the history of Israel.
The sixth gift is six geese a-laying. Eggs symbolize new life. The number six represents the Biblical story of the six days of creation. God spoke and filled the earth with plants, birds, animals, and people during the first six days of creation, as found in the first chapters of Genesis.
The seventh gift is seven swans a-swimming. In Paul’s letter to the Romans from the New Testament, he lists seven gifts of the Holy Spirit—prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion. Just as swans grow into graceful birds from “ugly ducklings,” so do God’s children who grow and change through the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
The eighth gift is eight maids a-milking. The number eight refers to the eight Beatitudes from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s Gospel: Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. You can also see these Beatitudes in our beautiful All Saints Chapel stained glass windows. These words nurture and strengthen one’s faith much like milk nourishes a child.
The ninth gift is nine ladies dancing. The number nine refers to the fruits of the Holy Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Ladies dancing reminds us to celebrate these gifts.
The tenth gift is ten lords a-leaping. Lords were men of authority who commanded people’s obedience. This verse symbolizes God’s Ten Commandments.
The eleventh gift is 11 pipers piping. The pipers represent the 11 apostles chosen by Jesus and who remained faithful to him. Like children following a piper, these disciples — Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas — followed Jesus and taught others to follow him. They pipe an everlasting tune of great joy.
The twelfth gift is 12 drummers drumming, which symbolizes the 12 vital Christian beliefs stated in the most ancient of creeds, The Apostle’s Creed. Like the steady rhythm of a drumbeat, so this creed sets forth what Christians believe.
Our January Virtue of the Month is creativity - a time when we as a community recognize our commitment to living as creative children of our creative Creator, to using our vision to imagine new possibilities for the future, and to offer our gifts and talents to turn these dreams into reality. Today’s service incorporated this virtue by encouraging our entire middle and upper school students and faculty to creatively express the joy of receiving the gifts of the 12 Days of Christmas.