On the eleventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me:
11 Pipers piping,
10 Lords a leaping,
9 Ladies dancing,
8 Maids a-milking,
7 Swans a-swimming,
6 Geese a-laying,
5 Golden rings;
4 Calling birds,
3 French hens,
2 Turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree!
One of the Christmas traditions in our family is to draw parts and sing "The 12 Days of Christmas." It's lots of fun and not easy to do - you can lose your place pretty quickly! We like to sing it on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, but it would probably be a good idea to sing it during the 12 days leading up to Epiphany.
There are some who say that the song contains Biblical illusion for each of the objects of the song. For example, 2 turtledoves would indicate the Old and New Testament, and 4 calling birds denote the 4 Apostles, but whether they do or not, it's still a great song.
During the 12 days of Christmas leading to Epiphany Day, Christian tradition reminds us of the continuing story of Christ's nativity; the gifts of the Magi, Herod's slaughter of the innocents, and the Temple visit. Many songs in ages past have been written about these events and perhaps none grip our hearts so sharply as those that commemorate the slaughter of the Innocents. King Herod, after hearing the report of the Magi that a King had been born, was so jealously obsessed with his own rule, that he deemed no other king would exist besides himself; so he issued to edict that all infant boys under the age of 2 were to be killed and sent his minions to perform the deed. "Thus was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: 'A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more." - Matt.2:17-18. These innocent babes became the first of the Martyrs. Yet despite all that man can and will do to try to thwart the purposes of God, His purposes cannot fail. Emmanuel, God with us, was revealed to the world to bear the sins of the world, to redeem the world to the Father. And that is the good news of Epiphany!
The Venerable Bede (673-735) wrote a hymn honoring Christian martyrs entitled "A Hymn for Martyrs Sweetly Sing". The following verses remind us of those first young martyrs:
A hymn for martyrs sweetly sing;
For Innocents your praises bring;
Of whom in tears was earth bereaved,
Whom heaven with songs of joy received;
Whose angels see the Father's face
World without end, and hymn His grace;
And, while they praise their glorious King,
A hymn for Martyrs sweetly sing.
A voice from Ramah was there sent,
A voice of weeping and lament, While Rachel mourned her children sore,
Whom for the tyrant's sword she bore.
After brief taste of earthly woe
Eternal triumph now they know;
For whom, by cruel torments rent,
A voice from Ramah was there sent.
And every tear is wiped away
By your dear Father's hand for aye:
Death hath no power to hurt you more;
Your own is life's eternal shore.
And all who, good seed bearing, weep,
In everlasting joy shall reap,
What time they shine in heavenly day,
And every tear is wiped away.
Another song commemorating this sad event is one better known to us, "The Coventry Carol". This carol is actually part of a Medieval Mystery play that was performed in Coventry each year on the Feast of Corpus Christi. The carol is sung at the part of the play where the mothers are singing lullabies to their babies in an attempt to put them to sleep so that Herod's soldiers won't find them.
"Lullay thou little tiny child,
By, by, lully,lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Oh, sisters, too, How may we do
For to preserve this day,
This poor youngling for whom we sing
By, by, lully, lullay?
Herod the King in his raging
Charged he hath this day
His men of might in His own sight
All children young to slay.
Then woe is me, poor child, for thee,
And ever mourn and say
For thy parting neither say nor sing:
"By, by, lully, lullay."