Wednesday, 31 December 2014

I'm Sorry to Play Grinch, But...

Today is the seventh day of Christmas, the day on which my true love gave me seven swans a-swimming. Did you know, however, that those swans represent the seven sacraments?

If you are Catholic, you may well have heard this story before. From the reign of Elizabeth I until the passage of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829, Catholicism was supressed in England. During this time Catholics couldn't practice the faith openly so they couldn't openly teach the faith to their children. As a result of this they developed various coded ways of passing on the faith. This is where "The Twelve Days of Christmas" comes from, a coded way of passing on certain Catholic beliefs. So the true love represents God the Father and His gifts are various gifts of God to humanity, eg. the partridge represents Jesus, the two turtle doves represent and Old and New Testaments, all the way through to the twelve lords a-leapin' who represent the twelve articles of the Apostles' Creed.

So, what you may have thought was just a pretty childrens' song is both a source of rich theological symbolism and a link to our brave brothers and sister in Christ. It is, I think you will agree, a lovely story. There is, I fear, only one small problem; it isn't true.

Perhaps I should modify that last statement. I can't prove the story isn't true any more than I can prove for certain that there are no fairies at the bottom of my garden. What I can say is that the truth of the story and the existence of the fairies have about as much evidence in their favour.

The theory was first put forward in 1979 by Canadian hymnologist Hugh McKellar. McKellar later admitted that he had no evidence for his theory and that it was based on pure conjecture. Consider the following facts that stand against the theory:

* While we have evidence for the popularity of the song going back as far as 1870, almost 50 years prior to Catholic emancipation, we have no evidence of the song ever being more popular among English Catholics than among Protestants.

* There is no mention of the link in any of the many writing by, for, and/or about English Catholics in the decades following Catholic Emancipation. Indeed, nothing to suggest the link in any Catholic literature prior to McKellar putting forward the theory a century and a half afterwards.

* Of the supposed symbolic meaning, eleven of the twelve refer to beliefs which Catholics and Protestants share. The sole exception is the seven swans, which supposedly represent the sacraments. Aside from these, all eleven 'codes' refer to things that there would be no need for Catholics to teach secretly because the Anglican Church agreed with them. There is, for example, no mention of purgatory, Mary, the saints or the Papacy.

Now, I know some will say, as I've already had it said to me, that, even if this is right, I shouldn't be a spoil sport, if people get joy or comfort for believing this, what harm does it do? Well, I think it does do some harm. Don't misunderstand me, no, I don't think the sky is going to fall because people have a mistaken belief about the history of a Christmas carol. I do see, however, two bits of harm being done:

First, we Christians protest, rightly in my view, when myths about history are promoted by our opponents. When atheists, for example, promote rubbish about Jesus being only one of a long line of pagan deities whose mother was a virgin and who was born on December 25th, we object. Well, if we are going to object when our opponents do it, we need to not do it ourselves.

Second, God gave us intellects to follow the evidence and to know the truth. Believing something which goes against the evidence because that something sounds nice or makes us feel good helps to build the bad habit of misusing the intellect. It is a vice. It is, I will grant, a very small vice in the grand scheme of things, but still a vice.


  1. It is hard to argue against your logic here, Jason. A pretty story remains a pretty story, not to be confused as true if it is without any objective evidence to support it. Have a grand New Year.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.