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Long Time Gone "Ten Lords A-Leaping?" Where Did They all Come From? And What Does That Even Mean?

By Priscilla Waggoner

December 24, 2019


Kiowa Healthmart Presents Long Time GoneTo many of those people who celebrate the season, Christmas just isn’t Christmas without the music that goes along with it. To be clear, by music, I don’t mean the pop songs performed by the day’s top performers that are often forgotten as soon as January comes along. No, I’m referring to those atmospheric, timeless, iconic Christmas carols with lyrics that most people know by heart (at least the first verse) and are performed year after year by groups ranging from heartbreakingly sweet children’s choruses to choirs filled with symphonic voices.

Almost all of the best known Christmas carols date back centuries. For example, the origin of Deck the Halls is tracked to the 16th century when it was a Welsh folk song titled Nos Galan. It seems that, in those years long ago, Nos Galan contained some rather risqué lyrics (fa-la-la-la-la, notwithstanding) typically sung with a sizeable dose of alcohol. However, that all changed in the 1800s when the lyrics we know today came into existence and were tied to the decorations and festivities that appeared in honor of Christmas.

Another favorite (that always brings tears to my eyes) is Silent Night. This truly lovely carol was first performed in its original German (Stille Nacht) by schoolmaster Franz Xaver Gruber and priest Joseph Mohr in the church of Saint Nikola in Oberndorf, Austria on Christmas Eve in 1818. There are numerous stories attached to how and why this carol was written, but one of the more popular versions tells a tale of mice chewing through vital parts of the organ played in Saint Nikola’s church, rendering the parish with no music at Christmas. As the story goes, the young teacher and priest collaborated to save Christmas Eve service by composing a simple carol that could be sung with no more than a guitar for accompaniment.

But the carol that has gotten a great deal of interest lately, and is one that schoolchildren delight in being able to sing on their own, is known as The Twelve Days of Christmas. While most people believe that the twelve days are the ones leading up to Christmas Day, the song actually references the twelve days following, which represent the period of time that passed between the birth of Christ and the arrival of the Three Maji, better known as the (Three) Kings or (Three) Wise Men. The time leading up to Christmas is actually known as the Advent and, on the liturgical calendar, includes the four Sundays and weeks leading up to Christmas Day, a time when, historically, Christians spiritually prepared themselves for honoring the birth of Christ.

So, what’s the story with the partridges in pear trees, the geese, the maids and the leaping lords? Although some challenge the veracity of the story, a writer named Ann Ball, who spent years writing on the lives of the saints and “The Handbook of Catholic Sacramentals”, explains the real meaning and tracks the carol back to England and the year 1558.

According to Ball, from the mid-1500s to 1829, Catholics in England were not allowed to freely and openly practice their religion. As a result, someone penned the carol as a summary of the principles of Christianity—also known as a catechism—for young Catholics, unable to receive instruction, to learn. Ball states there are two meanings of the carol: the one that everyone knows and references the multitude of gifts received by the writer’s “true love”. The second and hidden meaning of the carol is reserved for members of the Catholic Church to understand as each line contains a word that references a religious principle that, written as it was, will help Catholic children to remember.

As she describes in her book “The Handbook of Catholic Sacrementals”, what follows is the meaning (in Ball’s words) that are hidden in the lyrics to the carol we’ve heard for longer than we can remember.

The “true love” refers to Jesus Christ and his birth on earth as the embodiment of holy love. The partridge in the pear tree represents Christ, as well, because that bird willingly sacrifices its life in order to protect its young by pretending to be injured and drawing predators away.

The two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments.

The three French hens stood for faith, hope and love.

The four calling birds were the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The five golden rings represented the first five books of the Old Testament, which describe man's fall into sin and the great love of God in sending a Savior.

The six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation.

Seven swans a-swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit-----Prophesy, Serving, Teaching, Exhortation, Contribution, Leadership and Mercy.

The eight maids a-milking were the eight beatitudes.

Nine ladies dancing were the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit-----Charity, Joy, Peace, Patience (Forbearance, Goodness (Kindness), Mildness, Fidelity, Modesty, Chastity (Continency).

The ten lords a-leaping were the Ten Commandments.

The eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful Apostles.

The twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in The Apostles' Creed.

As was stated, it is somewhat open to debate if these hidden meanings actually account for the true origin of the carol or not.

Whether one believes this to be true or one accepts the carol at face value is a personal decision that is theirs alone to make. What can be celebrated is the wonderful imagery of the carol—both real and symbolic—and the great fun to be had in singing it with full gusto at this glorious time of Christmas.

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