While the popular carol The twelve days of Christmas is well known for its unusual cumulative structure, few carollers know that the lyrics’ original meaning involves an elaborate symbolic code.
The encoding of political messages in songs was frequent in Protestant England: examples include Rock-a-bye, baby, on the demise of King Henry VIII, and Ring around a rosy, on the plague of 1665. From at least the 1600s, Catholics in England disseminated their faith and politics in similarly encrypted form in catechism songs such as Green grow the rushes, O, and Go where I send thee.
Though first published only in 1909, The twelve days of Christmas is such a catechism song, and likely originated much earlier. The “true love” of the song is God, who bestows cumulative gifts. Each of the twelve gifts represents a particular image of Catholic faith. The ever-repeating “partridge in a pear tree” is Jesus: In English folklore the partridge feigns injury to lure predators from its young, and is thus willing to sacrifice itself to save those for whom it is responsible.
This according to “The twelve days of Christmas” by Hugh D. McKellar (The hymn: A journal of congregational song XLV/4 [October 1994] pp. 30–32). Below, a performance by the University of Washington Choral Program (with a little help from their friends).
The folia de reis Christmas tradition of southeastern Brazil involves a group of musicians and clowns traveling from house to house in a symbolic re-enactment of the journey of the Magi. The performers sing to bless the families they visit, and the families contribute money and food; the money is used to mount a festival on 6 January for the contributors.
Familial symbolism operates on various levels: At each stop, the group begins with an adoration of the Holy Family; then they sing directly to the members of the family they are visiting, with verses ordered to reflect traditional familial hierarchy; and the culminating festival unites all of the faithful in a symbolic extended family. The performing group itself is organized on a familial model.
This according to “The family in song: Vocal organization in the Brazilian folia de reis” by Suzel Ana Reily, an essay included in Ethnomusicologica II (Siena: Accademia Musicale Chigiana, 1993) pp. 203–213. Below, folia de reis in Miracema.
Since the fifteenth century—perhaps even earlier—a group of young choirboys known as los seises has danced for feast days in the Catedral de Santa María de la Sede in Seville. These cantoricos were performing in Christmas Eve plays by the beginning of the sixteenth century.
Documents from 1505 record expenses for masks for the boys’ performance as singing and dancing shepherds, and toward the middle of the sixteenth century the Council Acts indicate performance of a farsa de Navidad. As described in 1541, these brief skits were often associated with lively dance numbers from the contemporaneous Spanish theater. These diversions appear to have caused some offense, as a 1549 decision banned the performances, allowing only devotional singing.
This according to “Los seises in the golden age of Seville” by Lynn Matluck Brooks (Dance chronicle V/2 , pp. 121–155). Below, los seises perform in 2010.