Behind the music of Christmas

December 15, 2006|by LISA PREJEAN

"On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me ...."

Did you mentally finish that line with "a partridge in a pear tree?" It's hard not to, isn't it? We get these Christmas song lyrics in our heads, and they just seem to come back to us year after year.

The endearing nature of this season's music is hard to shake, even for the staunchest humbugs among us.

Knowing the stories behind the songs make them even more compelling.

For example, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is typically viewed as a nonsense song. Yet some people suggest that it contains secret codes developed by the church in England during the 16th century to teach children about the faith.

"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" might make you think of happy men resting, but that might not be the original intent of the song, according to Ace Collins, author of more than 50 books, including "Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas" and "More Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas."


In the 1500s and 1600s, rest meant "make" or "keep," and merry rarely meant happy, Collins says. It typically meant "great" or "mighty."

A better interpretation of the song's intent is, "God Make Ye Mighty Gentlemen," Collins says.

That explains references to "Robin Hood and His Merry (Mighty) Men" and "Eat, Drink and Be Merry (Mighty)," Collins says.

At one point, Christmas was a raucous holiday associated with high crime and unruly revelers. The New York Police Department was formed in part to help combat the violence on Christmas Day, Collins says.

Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas in England because he considered it an unholy day. When Queen Victoria of England married Prince Albert of Germany in 1840, many traditional German customs of Christmas were adopted by the English, and the holiday began to have more religious leanings.

This is also the time period when stories of Saint Nicholas began to be widely circulated. As a result, Christmas became a celebration for families.

When Clement Clarke Moore wrote "Twas the Night Before Christmas" in 1822, the public image of Christmas and Santa Claus was redefined. Prior to Moore's poem, St. Nicholas had not been associated with a sleigh or reindeer.

"People began to seize the idea that Christmas is for children," Collins says.

The songs we sing reflect that, and we can't simply call them songs, when the term "carols" seems to fit much better.

Carol is an ancient word that was associated with dancing or moving while singing a happy song, Collins says. It wasn't originally linked to Christmas songs, but to any song that had a happy spirit. The term "carol" has applied to Christmas songs only since about the 1840s, Collins says.

As people started singing songs while moving from house to house to spread holiday cheer, the term became associated mainly with Christmas songs.

"The old term 'carol' fit them better than anything else," Collins says. "Caroling is just moving around and singing."

If you're caroling or listening to carolers this season, you might be curious about those secret codes in the "Twelve Days of Christmas." Here they are:

· The partridge represents Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross because it will lay down its life for its nest, Collins says. The tree represents the cross.

· Two turtle doves stand for the Old Testament and the New Testament.

· Three French Hens represent faith, hope and love.

· Four calling birds are the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

· Five golden rings are the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

· The six geese a-laying represent the six days of creation. (On the seventh day, God rested, so that day wasn't included in this count.)

· Seven swans a-swimming are the seven gifts of the spirit: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading and compassion.

· Eight maids a-milking represent the beatitudes found in the book of Matthew.

· Nine ladies dancing stand for the nine fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

· The 10 lords a-leaping represent the Ten Commandments. (How that connection was made is rather unclear.)

· The 11 pipers piping are the faithful disciples (minus Judas).

· Twelve drummers drumming represent the 12 points in the Apostles' Creed.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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