By Dave Kopel
National Review Online, December 13, 2002 11:00 a.m. More by Kopel about Christmas.
Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas. By Ace Collins. (Amazon.com lists this as being out of print, but Zondervan's website shows the book in print.) A delightful look at 30 different sacred and secular Christmas songs. You'll learn that "Gloria in Excelsis Deo" (the foundation line of "Angels We Have Heard on High"), was universally adopted in Christian churches way back in 130 A.D. The powerful "Joy to the World" was written by the English Nonconformist Isaac Watts, and was bitterly denounced the established church because the song rephrases a Psalm.
My favorite chapters are Collins's beautiful explanations of what seem to be the two most-inane Christmas songs. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was written in 1938 by a father to comfort his eight-year-old daughter, while the girl's mother was dying. The author never intended to publish it, but when he was importuned to read its tear-stained pages at the Montgomery Ward office Christmas party, the book took off.
"The Twelve Days of Christmas" is not really about a freakish suitor obsessed with pear trees. The song originates from the days when Catholicism was illegal in England, and is a mnemonic through which Catholic parents covertly taught children the elements of faith. For example, the "eight maids a milking" refers to Christ's love for even the lowliest (a milkmaid) and also symbolizes the eight blessed types of people in the Beatitudes. The "nine ladies dancing" are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit. And the partridge? The mother partridge will save her children by sacrificing herself and luring a predator away from the nest; the pear tree is an ancient symbol of the cross.
— Dave Kopel is an NRO contributing editor.
Update: Collins may be wrong about the origins of The Twelve Days, since nothing in the song (even the secret version) is inconsistent with Anglican doctrine. Even so, the song is a nice mnemonic teaching device for Christians.