The great African Bishop and Father of the Church, St Augustine of Hippo, expressed the insight in his inimitable, crisp Latin: “Cantare amantis est” (Sermon 336), It belongs to the lover to sing, or in other words, Only the lover sings. In fact, only a lover can sing, only one who loves and is loved has the right to sing. When love finds its way into a heart, it breaks into song. That is why most songs in any language are love songs, expressions of the heart that exults.
Christmas is usually associated with songs, hymns and carols. At the birth of Jesus, angelic choirs sang in the heavens (Lk 2,14), the shepherds returned to their flocks praising and glorifying God (singing all the way back, I imagine) for what they had seen and heard (Lk 2, 20) and Mary sang in her heart as she meditated on all these things (Lk 2, 19). It was inevitable that singing should be part of Christmas from the very beginning, for Love was born on Christmas night.
Among the favourite and enduring Christmas carols in the English language, from the heavenly, Angels we have heard on high, to the homely, Come, come, come to the manger, and the sublime, almost ethereal, Silent Night, Holy Night, one that is most popular is, The Twelve Days of Christmas. The tune has a lilt about it that immediately catches the ear, but the words are another matter. One wonders what reference the words have to Christmas, except that they count the twelve days from Christmas Day to Epiphany. I thought it was a charming but farcical carol until I discovered quite recently that it had a secret meaning written in a coded language. The context is the great persecution that King Henry VIII unleashed on the Catholic Church after he had set himself by an Act of Parliament as Head of the Church. From 1558 to 1829 the Catholic faith was persecuted in England and its practice was severely forbidden. In this tragic situation an unknown Catholic composed this carol to teach children their Catechism and pass on to them the fundamentals of the Catholic faith. Through this ingenious way the carol could be sung openly without inviting suspicion, while only the initiated would understand the true meaning behind the lyrics. If you do not know the words of the song, you can find it on the internet, but here is its hidden meaning:
1 My True Love refers to God: The partridge in a pear tree refers to Jesus Christ
2 Turtle Doves refers to the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens refers to Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds refers to the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings refers to the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying refers to the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming refers to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking refers to the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing refers to the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping refers to the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping refers to the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming refers to the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed
What is truly wonderful about this carol is that it was written and sung in a time of terrible persecution for Catholics. Notwithstanding the immense sufferings of the poor Catholics of that time, their joy bubbled over into song that expressed their steadfastness in the faith. They sang this ingeniously coded carol cheerfully, because they experienced the love of the Lord in the midst of suffering. Only the lover sings in the midst of suffering, because the love that permeates his heart triumphs over the pain. His faith and the experience of being loved are victorious over suffering and death. That is why he sings.
If this be true, then this carol tells us something very profound about Christmas. From the beginning, Christmas is inextricably bound up with suffering as it is with singing. Jesus was born in a stable on a cold wintry night and kept warm in a manger of straw in the company of Mary and Joseph, “because there was no place for them in the inn” (Lk 2,7). The hurried flight into Egypt and the ruthless massacre of the Holy Innocents are as much part of the Christmas story as are the angelic choirs with their singing. While angels sang on high, and the shepherds rejoiced and Mary contemplated in wonder, the little Babe of Bethlehem suffered rejection and became the object of a sinister assassination plot to exterminate him. “He came unto his own and his own received him not” (Jn 1,11). The shadow of the Cross already fell on the Crib, and Calvary was joined to Bethlehem.
But isn’t Christmas supposed to be about unsullied happiness and joy and peace and friendship and all the good things in life? Undoubtedly so, but at a deeper level than one imagines it to be. We are so accustomed to associate Christmas with buntings and lights, presents and sweets and Santa Claus, that we tend to forget that Christmas has a message deeper than that. There is a truer joy and peace than what appears to be so at a superficial level. It is a joy that shines in the midst of tears, a peace that endures through the pain. It comes from the realization that God has entered our broken world and taken upon himself our pain, in order to give us a peace that the world cannot give and a joy that none can take away. And it is this kind of love in the midst of tears that floods our hearts on Christmas Day and remains with us long after the buntings are taken down and the coloured lights are put out. And so we can truly sing our hearts out with all those who suffer pain, loss, disappointment and defeat: “On the first day of Christmas, my true Love gave to me a partridge in a pear tree” – Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ!