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On the 12 days of Christmas

21 December 2018

Our writers reflect on the 12 days of the song




A partridge in a pear tree

Madeleine Davies

AT ITS launch, “Ecclesiastical Alan” — a Twitter account dedicated to appending Alan Partridge quotes to photos of the Church of England’s bishops — was described as an “inevitable fusion”. There’s something to this: not only is there a substantial Alan fan-base in the pews (even the Archbishop of Canterbury let the account know that he was on his way to Norwich), but most of us will have come across a real-life “Alan” in our lives.

In J. L. Carr’s novel A Month in the Country, the mournful country vicar, Mr Keach, observes that “the English are not a deeply religious people”; and Alan perhaps typifies a certain guardedness when it comes to evangelism. When his Christian PA, Lynn, spots her moment — Alan is downcast after some bad news from his employers at the BBC — he swiftly cuts her off: “Lynn, I’m not coming to your Baptist church. They always get people when they’re down. . . ”

There’s a sense here that this is not the first time she’s piped up.

Alan, in his own words, does not want salvation, and rarely ventures into metaphysical realms. He wants celebrity, adulation, and, ideally a Lexus IS300 (“the Japanese Mercedes”). In a church he can also be fantastically insensitive, leaving a funeral blithely singing “Life isn’t everything”, although a brief adventure in exegesis of Genesis delivers some interesting insights (“That bloody snake. . .”).

But, in more recent appearances, there are signs that he may, in a quiet way, have been acquiring some virtues. In the 2013 film Alpha Papa, he demonstrates a capacity for heroism, makes an effort with the teenage sons of a shy new flame, and is shown being reconciled with a newly assertive Lynn.

I like to think that, had he bumped into the Archbishop on the pedestrianised streets of Norwich, a warm handshake — encased in leather driving glove — would have been proffered. And he might even have let Lynn get a selfie, too.

Madeleine Davies is the features editor of the Church Times.

Two turtle doves

Rachel Mann

IN HER poem for the feast of the Presentation, Christina Rossetti writes: “O Firstfruits of our grain, Infant and Lamb appointed to be slain, A Virgin and two doves were all Thy train, With one old man for state, When Thou didst enter first Thy Father’s gate.’”

While the Presentation or Candlemas may seem a little distant from the “Twelve Days of Christmas”, it has often been treated as the final liturgical moment in the season of Christmas. Many people keep their nativity sets up until that date. In addition, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was first performed on Candlemas in 1602.

Rossetti’s poem also reminds us of the rich symbolism of doves. She implies that the two doves — offered as redemptive sacrifice in the biblical text — are part of Christ’s simple “train”, or honour-guard, as he is carried into the Temple for the first time.


The Bible, of course, contains rich dove-based symbolism. Noah sends a dove out to test whether the flood has receded, and it brings back a freshly plucked olive leaf, a sign of hope and life. Perhaps, most definitively, in St Luke’s and St Matthew’s Gospels the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove at the moment of Christ’s baptism.

Doves (and olive branches) have become associated with peace and reconciliation. The depth of connection between doves and peace is reflected in American political idiom: those in favour of aggressive foreign policies are called “hawks”, while those who take a conciliatory stance are called “doves”. For Christians, the connective tissue between ancient and modern dove symbolism lies in the Bible: doves take us back to God and to his son, the Prince of Peace.

As a song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” provides a fun singalong for all ages. In the year of the centenary of the Armistice, however, there is potentially great pathos in the gift of “two turtle doves”: doves were offered at the dedication of Christ; doves signal peace; and doves show forth the Holy Spirit. In a world that still hungers for peace, and it is yet to find it, may we know the blessing of doves this Christmastide.

Canon Rachel Mann is Rector of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, and the author of Fierce Imaginings: The Great War, ritual memory and God (DLT).


Three French (Suffolk) hens

Malcolm Doney

I HAD never really thought of chickens as individuals before we got some. My wife and I moved from London to Suffolk a few years back, and — in our townie way — thought it would be nice to keep hens — for the eggs, not the pot.

MALCOLM DONEYMatilda, a Suffolk hen

We wanted a brood, or clutch, or run, or whatever the collective noun for chickens is. And, after a slightly bibulous dinner with some neighbours, decided to form a three-household chicken consortium.

We bought ten hardy, egg-producing hybrids, because we wanted them as workers rather than pets, but selected a range of breeds and colours for aesthetic reasons: black, white, brown, “blue”, and speckled. We gave them homely traditional names, mostly: Gloria, Mabel, Matilda, Henrietta. And three — for our own reasons — we called after gospel singers: Bessie, Mahalia, and Sister Rosetta.

They settled in quickly, and started laying prodigiously: an average of eight eggs a day between them. The collective has worked a treat: we share the husbandry between us; so there’s always someone on chook watch.

On the chicken front, it became immediately obvious that the collective was not a collective, but ten very individual young females. Matilda will happily sit down to be picked up; Gloria is flighty, with the sprint speed of Usain Bolt; Henrietta is an avian hippy wandering alone in a cloud of unknowing.

Then there’s Mabel. Mabel is a plain, apparently unassuming, brown hen, but under her feathery breast lurks a spirit of adventure. She escapes. Almost every day. Despite clipped wings, chicken-wire fencing, six-foot high hedges, she clambers, scrambles, burrows, and finds her way into the flowerbeds and the veg patch, scraping, pecking, digging.

Her independence is such that she eschews the nesting boxes that her compatriots use, and has set up her own nest under a hedge near the front gate. We were entirely ignorant of this until recently, when we tracked her down in an MI5-inspired surveillance operation, and found her, and the 11 eggs she was hosting.

She comes back to the coop at night to join her crew, happy to be part of the flock. But, in daylight hours, Mabel, we have to accept, is very much her own chicken.

Malcolm Doney is a priest in Suffolk and the author, with Martin Wroe, of Lifelines: Notes on life and love, faith and doubt, published by Unbound.

Four calling birds

Jerry Marshall

“TRANSCEND reflects the Palestinian dream of a prosperous life with open borders,” the team leader for an Israeli client, eTeacher, Abdallah Khalifah, says. “We’re working with clients from all over the globe, and across borders. I believe that creating jobs for youth in a very troubled place of the world is worth working for.”

Transcend is my Bethlehem baby, born in 2012. It’s a call-centre business, set up with my friend Nassim Nour, and uses the language skills in Bethlehem to bring jobs, skills, and exports unaffected by movement restrictions. Today, we have 120 staff providing contact-centre services and software development for businesses in Palestine, Israel, and beyond.

JERRY MARSHALLJerry Marshall, with members of the Transcend Team

Besides creating jobs designed to survive even in a curfew, we try to model integrity and gender equality. Our first CEO, Abeer Hazboun, became the first Palestinian women to win a place on the prestigious IMD MBA programme in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Encouraging and respecting our staff is not only morally right, but also makes business sense. “I feel like management trusts my decisions and supports me in my daily work,” says Rozet Najajrah, who was regularly “Agent of the Month”, and is now team leader for a wellness programme.

Behind Transcend is a desire to bring hope. Yaman Qaraqe, one of our first team leaders, says: “This transcends political barriers and limitations. I really love that. I’m the eldest daughter in the family, and I’m my family’s hope. . . I love it, because it makes me feel renewed every day because I learn about other cultures, and it helps my English come to life.”

Abdallah, Abeer, Yaman, and Rozet are just four “calling birds” whose communication skills enable us to transcend the separation wall. Transcend is risky, because not everyone likes what we are doing; but it is one small source of hope in a troubled region. The Jesus plan was high-risk, but is the primary source of hope for us all in a turbulent world.

Jerry Marshall is the co-founder and chair of Transcend Support Ltd.


Five gold rings

Anne Bennett

SLEEVELESS dresses are unwise in December. The bridesmaids are shivering, and even in cassock and surplice I am chilled. Only the bride is impervious to the cold, fuelled by an inner furnace of anxiety, adrenaline, and hope. I arrange the bridesmaids in order of height, whisper some reassurance to the bride, and nod to the verger. She signals the organist, and the bridal party makes its stately way down the aisle.

All weddings are special, but Christmas weddings have a distinctive beauty. We have brought in evergreen branches, and the scent of pine and incense is sharp in the air. The candles, barely visible in summer, gleam in winter gloom. The florist has found mistletoe to hang from the pulpit — pagan, possibly, but the church will happily adopt it, just as we once adopted this midwinter festival and made it our own: a celebration of light and love coming to redeem a benighted world.


We sing a carol. There is nervous laughter as I preach about the joys and tribulations of marriage. And now the couple are facing each other, and we begin the vows. Silence falls, absolute silence. Even the smallest children are still, caught by the power of the moment, as two people repeat after me the ancient words. To have and to hold. For better, for worse. Till death us do part. They exchange golden rings, and make more promises. With my body I honour you. All that I am I give to you.

And now they are married, and no one shall put them asunder, and we all cheer, and the organist belts out the “Hallelujah Chorus” to carry them down the nave.

Love came down at Christmas, and on this winter wedding day we see it come down still. In this church, on this day, blessings abound.

The Revd Anne Bennett is Team Vicar in the Ravensbourne Team Ministry, Southwark diocese.

Six geese a-laying

Caroline Chartres

SURELY the most famous Christmas goose was eaten by the Cratchit family in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol: “There never was such a goose. . . Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration.”

Sherlock Holmes was also partial to roast goose, as evidenced in The Case of the Blue Carbuncle (in which the goose plays a crucial part): “There is your hat, then, and there your bird,” said he. “By the way, would it bore you to tell me where you got the other one from? I am somewhat of a fowl fancier, and I have seldom seen a better grown goose.”

Roast goose is common to Chinese, Middle Eastern, and European cuisines, traditionally associated in this country with Michaelmas. There is still an annual Goose Fair in Nottingham, to which geese were once driven long distances, their feet protected by tar and sand.

ALAMYA goose held aloft in A Christmas Carol (1938)

The Pilgrim Fathers took geese with them to the New World, while turkey made the crossing in the other direction and eventually supplanted the goose as centrepiece of the Christmas feast.

Geese are known to have been domesticated in Egypt more than 4000 years ago. They were familiar fowl in farmyards in Homeric Greece, depicted on the sides of pitchers and vases. Caesar found geese already in Britain on his arrival, attributing the fact that the natives didn’t appear to eat them to some sort of religious objection; certainly, the wild goose is the ancient Celtic symbol for the Holy Spirit.

But perhaps — like the Romans — British people used geese, which are famously aggressive, as guardians: in the fourth century BC, the geese on the Capitoline Hill reputedly saved Rome from an attack by the Gauls by sounding the alarm. In the 1950s, the South Vietnamese apparently used geese as nightwatchmen to guard their aircraft.

We are familiar with the association of “Mother Goose” with children’s poetry; less so with Father Goose: His book, a collection of nonsense rhymes for children by L. Frank Baum (author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz), published in 1899. Baum’s Father and Mother Goose were ahead of their time:

Old Mother Goose became quite new,
And joined a Women’s Club;
She left poor Father Goose at home
To care for Sis and Bub.

The Brothers Grimm have a tale of a fox who tells some geese that he is going to eat them. They ask if they can pray first, and pray on, and on — one way of avoiding Christmas dinner.

Caroline Chartres is the faith-page and diary editor of the Church Times.

Seven swans a-swimming

Richard Chartres

IN THE springtime of mythological history, the swan was associated with Apollo, the god of light and music. His mother, Leto, was ravished by Zeus, much to the fury of his legitimate consort, Hera, the Queen of Heaven. Hera pursued Leto to the island of Delos, where swans assisted at the birth of Apollo. According to Callimachus, in his “Hymn to Delos”, they flew seven times around the island to distract Hera from the birth pangs. Apollo was born on the seventh day of the month, and the delighted father gave him a swan-drawn chariot.


The swan has always been associated with grace, beauty, and the power of poetry, although there is also a shadow side. Zeus notoriously took the form of a swan to seduce the nymph Leda. The black swan has also become a symbol of an ominous event beyond the realm of normal expectation. This symbolism also has its roots in the ancient world: the Roman poet Juvenal refers to a “black swan”, meaning a bird that was not believed to exist. It was only in 1697 that a Dutch explorer was the first European to see a black swan in its native Australian habitat.

In keeping with its symbolic character, the swan was believed to announce its death with a hauntingly sweet song. Socrates, as he was dying slowly from hemlock poisoning, consoled himself with the idea that, as the bird of Apollo, the swan sang because he could foresee the joys of the world to come.

There have been attempts to claim a Christian character for the seven swans a-swimming, and they are most commonly held to be symbols of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, or the seven sacraments. Possibly, however, at the time that the 12-day sequence entered the repertoire, seven swans were just regarded as yet another very generous gift. Their down was a luxurious stuffing for bolsters, and their feathers were also fashion accessories.

They were also considered good to eat, and featured at many a Tudor banquet, although now, at the annual Swan Feast held by the Vinters’ Company, on the last Thursday in November, readers of the Church Times will be relieved to know that swan is no longer eaten.

Lord Chartres was Bishop of London from 1995 to 2017.

Eight maids a-milking

Eileen Davies

MAIDS a-milking would certainly have been true many years ago on our farms, where every farm milked between six and ten cows by hand, with a tripod stool, and the bucket underneath; and any cow that did not like the manner in which she was milked would have kicked the maid and bucket and milk to the other side of the cowshed.

Today’s larger dairy units still have maids milking, but the robotic kind: cows are housed all year round, and walk into the robotic milking area when they feel it necessary to let their milk down, which is usually two or three times a day.


Many dairy farms employ our brothers and sisters from various European and other overseas countries to milk their herds through rotary parlour systems, or herringbone parlours. On the smaller family farms, the farmer, partner, and son or daughter will engage with milking twice a day, recognising every cow by name, and knowing her family traits.

Milking undoubtedly is joyous work, even though it is a must-do job, twice every day of the year, even on Christmas Day.

Working closely with the cows, one becomes affiliated with them, and they become a large part of one’s extended family. Every dairy farmer will state that the manner in which one cares for one’s cows will, in turn, care for the dairy farmer.

The price that the dairy farmer receives for this vital part of our staple diet does not do justice to the hard work involved in producing milk: on average, the producer will receive 28p per litre, and the consumer will pay in excess of £1 per litre. Therefore, when we enjoy our daily intake of farm-assured high-quality locally produced milk, spare a thought for the dairy farmer, the hours they work, and the financial return.

Canon Eileen Davies is Priest-in-Charge of St Non’s, Llanerchaeron, with Ciliau Aeron and Dihewyd and Mydroilyn, and a Canon of St Davids Cathedral. She is the diocese’s adviser on rural matters.

Nine ladies dancing

Pat Ashworth

THOUSANDS of couples in Ireland owe their union to the weekly parish dance — a feature of life in the Church of Ireland (C of I) in the 1950s. Victor Smithson met his wife, Marwin, at the Tuesday-night dances in Rathfarnham, a suburb of Dublin, where the vicar looked on benignly and the church could be reassured that its young people were being kept together.

Then: Victor and Marwin Smithson at a works dinner dance

He worked at Player’s, and was in lodgings with his brother; she worked at Jacobs, and was living in the YWCA, where girls had to be back at 11.15 p.m. — cue for a madcap journey home on the crossbar of Victor’s bike. Committee members took the names, addresses, and church affiliation of everyone arriving at the dance: “A gentle way of keeping a check on the community,” he suggests, although many would know each other already from the boarding schools that were often the only providers of C of I secondary education.

It was the time in Ireland when young people were drifting from the country to the city. A midweek dance for the lodgers and flat-dwellers was, he reflects now, a huge social service, and different from the parish dances in the rural areas, which began at 9 p.m. and ended at 3 a.m. to accommodate the rhythms of farming life.

Now: Victor and Marwin Smithson, who celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary next year

Unspoken etiquette required the boys not to be too forward in asking a girl to dance more than once — “in case you got noticed” — while the girls seized the opportunity of the Ladies’ Choice “to make for you really quickly so that she didn’t miss her chance. . . That’s where you’d be reading the signals.” At rural parish dances, he remembers, there were always 50-year-old farmers still looking for a wife; the girls would be intent on avoiding these.

Marwin and Victor celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary next year.

Pat Ashworth is a writer.

Ten lords a-leaping

Nick Baines

THE thought of any Lords I know actually doing any leaping is one that fills me with dread. Yet, 2018 has shown the House of Lords displaying a sort of collective athleticism.

This has been a challenging year on many fronts. Brexit, the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, and associated legislation have dominated everything. This process has seen parliamentary democracy having to go beyond a slogan to an assertion by the Lords of their rights and (more importantly) responsibilities within our polity. Bishops have attempted to speak in ways that go beyond the immediate political and economic challenges facing the country and urge a renewal of civility and truthfulness in language and discourse.

ALAMYA lord leaping (1830): a portrait of Henry Brougham, in his Lord Chancellor’s wig and black gown, taking an enormous stride from the House of Commons to the House of Lords. It was a satire on his abandoning his new Yorkshire seat and constituents, and his eagerness for high office

Bishops also helped to lead the way in seeking justice and mercy for those whose lives prove to be difficult. Universal Credit and its consequences are central to this, as were the debates over fixed-odds betting terminals and to do with refugees. Statistics and slogans are easy to trade in, but bishops are constantly fed the human stories from our parishes: foodbanks, poverty, addiction, destitution, and loss of hope. We have also attempted to shine some light — and reduce the heat — into such areas of debate.

Bishops have engaged in serious detailed work on: an inquiry into forgotten seaside towns and deprivation; artificial intelligence; communications; the Paterson inquiry.

The overarching theme for many of us in the House of Lords has been the need to maintain cross-party and cross-issue relationships. The civility for which the House is famed has been tested at times, but its commitment to the common good has usually won through.

From questioning government policy, probing about the UK’s care for the wider world, and urging effective change in the way in which we represent our values, the Lords in general (and the bishops in particular) have sought to do justice in complex and testing times.

The Rt Revd Nick Baines is the Bishop of Leeds.

Eleven pipers piping

Doug Gay

THE ninth day of Christmas 2018 will fall on Wednesday 2 January 2019. This enjoys the happy distinction of being a Bank Holiday in Scotland, though not in England; an anomaly sometimes linked to the Scots tendency to celebrate Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) in a particularly committed fashion, during which, as the Scots saying that echoes the King James Bible confesses, “strong drink might be taken.”


A second Bank Holiday allows revellers to switch to Irn Bru (Scotland’s other national drink) and recover themselves the better to cope with those ten heartless souls who will be drumming them back to work on 3 January.

The pipers in this glorious English carol (there are sometimes 11) may not have originally been bagpipers, but, given the carol’s disputed origins and meanings, and generally anarchic character, I am happy to claim them for Scotland and clothe them in tartan.

Sometimes despised and rejected by outsiders, the traditions of playing and composing for the Highland pipes are extraordinarily rich and subtle, encompassing both the “little/light music” (in Gaelic ceòl beag) of marches, strathspeys, reels, and jigs; and the “big music” (ceòl mór) of Pibroch/Piobaireachd: a slower, extended art music in which a solo piper works elaborate variations around a melodic theme.

Reflecting on a move into the last days of the Christmas season and the rather more pagan and secular disruption of the 12 by Hogmanay, I cannot resist invoking Jesus’s words in Matthew 11.17, chiding the cynicism of his critics: he compares his generation to children in the street, crying out indignantly “We piped for you and you did not dance, we sang a dirge and you did not mourn.”

The wisdom he invokes knows that there is a time to mourn and a time to dance. A good piper — or even nine, or 11 — will be able to accompany both, and a wise Christian will hope to discern when to do which.

The Revd Dr Doug Gay is a lecturer in practical theology at the University of Glasgow.

Twelve drummers drumming

Terl Bryant

FOR some, the idea of one drummer drumming is quite enough. But 12?

Group drumming is just about as old as it comes, and drummers have gathered, making rhythms for dancing and marching, since the dawn of time. The sound of drums is powerful: it can prompt a child to jump for joy, and an old person to sway and clap, despite the pain.

I left school at 16 to start a career as a drummer. And, in 1995, I had a dream that changed my life. In it, I stood with a group of drummers, drumming in the presence of God. We were pounding out a beat that somehow reflected the power and majesty of God.


It so inspired me that it changed the course of my life. I started gathering Christian drummers to play together and live out what I had seen in the dream: drummers beating out rhythms as prayer, praise, and encouragement for the glory of Christ. I called the gathering “Psalm Drummers”, and, over the years, these Christian drummers went on to drum on numerous occasions, in many contexts, leading the church in worship.

I was recently in Pakistan, and had the privilege of worshipping alongside Christians whose faith is often challenged in the same way that first-century believers were. During my visit, I was able to play with other drummers and lead a congregation of several hundred believers in a rhythmic version of the Lord’s Prayer. We played a powerful beat as the crowd declared, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” It was electric, as we all came together with one voice in praise.

The Bible tells us that God is love. This Christmas, may God, our “true love”, send to us the joyful sound of 12 drummers drumming: a heavenly heartbeat of faith, hope, and love.

Terl Bryant is a drummer and percussionist, and the founder of Psalm Drummers.


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