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Did the "Twelve Days of Christmas" song originate to teach the catechism to youngsters?

There's an email going around about a coded message in the popular Christmas carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas." The email says that the twelve gifts represent symbols of Christianity in order to teach a catechism to youngsters, either with or without a persecution theme. Do you believe this? (12/20/2008)

No, although I suppose anything is possible. Here are my observations, in more or less random order.

This very old carol was apparently first written down in 1780, in a children's book called "Mirth Without Mischief." That's not an auspicious title for a coded catechism to teach children about Christianity.

According to snopes.com, the attribution of the coded message didn't arise until the 1990's. I'm always skeptical of brand-new folk explanations, and since the advent of the Internet such explanations have proliferated. Once we frail humans have seen an explanation from three different "independent" sources, we tend to believe in its accuracy. All too often, the sources are neither independent nor accurate. Let me tell you a story. My Ph.D. thesis was entitled "Normal Pore Distribution in Cytheracian Ostracoda." I read a whole bunch of papers that stated quite confidently that normal pores are light sensitive. Each paper cited miscellaneous other papers to prove this, none of which did anything but cite other papers. Eventually I tracked the citations back to one single 19th-century paper in French. I got my mother-in-law and brother-in-law to translate the paper for me. It said (roughly), "Normal pores are kind of sparkly under the microscope. I wonder if they are light sensitive?" This sort of thing has happened to me often enough that I think it's always wise to check the original, or at least the oldest, source; as I said above, the original source for this song (which I have not personally checked) apparently doesn't say anything about a code.

The idea that God or the Church distributes information by means of coded messages has gotten a lot of play in the past 10 or 20 years. I urge you to treat every example of this idea with considerable skepticism or outright disbelief. God has spent the past 4000 years trying to make His message clear to us, not all that successfully. He is not about to code it. The Church is in the same position. Why make children memorize a complicated song with a bunch of connections to scripture that they then must remember separately? Best just to memorize the catechism in the first place.

The purpose of a mnemonic is to provide an easy way to remember something difficult. The words of the Twelve Days of Christmas are hard to remember. If it were a clear mnemonic, like "Every good boy does fine" for the notes E, G, B, D, and F on the musical staff, maybe I'd believe it. But it isn't.

Finally, and I think this is the real killer, different versions of this story exist, which attribute different points in the catechism to the various verses. For example, the three French hens are said to be the Holy Trinity, the three gifts of the magi, or the three virtues, faith, hope, and love. What kind of code is that?

In all fairness, I will give you one true example of how something like a coded message could come into being. Twenty years ago or so, a Greek Orthodox priest here in Albuquerque got a big write-up in the paper. He had been raised Roman Catholic in northern New Mexico. On her deathbed, his grandmother (or somebody) revealed to him the secret that the family was actually Jewish, and that they had been forcibly converted during the Spanish Inquisition. Apparently this family secret was "encoded" in a few traditions like not eating pork. The secret was known only to one person in each generation, and now he was It. Having been raised Christian, he couldn't deal with being Jewish. Having learned this family history, he could no longer deal with being Roman Catholic. He converted to Greek Orthodoxy.

In conclusion – great song. But not, in my opinion, a means of remembering the catechism. Here's a better one:
Copyright 2008, 2012 by Regina L. Hunter. All rights reserved. This page has been prepared for the web site by Deanna Rains.

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

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