Number Twelve in three of its many contexts

Number Twelve in three of its many contexts

Number Twelve in three of its many contexts



We in Sri Lanka are going through one of our hardest times since being independent of British rule for more than seven decades. JVP insurrections and the civil war were hard to go through, but barring the pandemic, we need not have come to such straits. The world too suffers, not only from a resurgence of variants of Covid 19 in most countries, but from unusual weather and other man-made travails.

A friend in New York said she had not taken down her Christmas tree though January 5 was past. “I wanted the solace of its brightness and glow of lights. The children have just left home and it’s bleak.” A snow storm, much exaggerated in the media, was blowing outside.

Like many others I craved respite from mishaps, illnesses and mismanagement. The Christmas song I did not think much of, preferring the traditional carols, kept running through my mind. The Twelve days of Christmas is heard so very many times each passing year but remembered best by me is John Denver singing it with the Moppets years ago. So I delved into Internet and googled and was long occupied learning its origins, references etc. Many Christians will already know all I found, but I felt it it would be nice for the rest of my readers to read something other than trials and tribulations we are made to suffer as of now.

The Christmas song

In The Twelve days of Christmas the period mentioned covers December 25 through January 5 to end on this day. These twelve days marks the span between the birth of Christ and the coming of the Magi – the three wise men bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, symbolizing kingship, deity and death. It is also called Epiphany and the Three Kings’ Day.

Number Twelve in three of its many contextsThe song that still goes on in my mind is a holiday classic which includes love, giving, gifts and a general feeling of camaraderie – a definite enfolding feeling of the Christmas season. The gifts do not mean much to modern people used as they are to wonders of electronics et al, even in hung stockings. A ‘calling bird’, ‘eight maids-a-milking’ when milking is now done by non-touching pumps. One may ask about the first gift – is it only the bird I get or a pear tree to boot? Where can I grow it living in an upstair flat? No need to uselessly speculate. That is stupid splitting hairs over a sweet song. Here are facts I retrieved.

The song is supposed to have first appeared in print in a children’s storybook ‘Mirth without Mischief in 1780 Britain but its composition was much earlier. In the 1800s it was a game played in England where forgetfulness of the name of the correct gift caused a forfeiture. Much earlier when in certain countries Christianity was banned or Christians were frowned upon, it supposedly carried messages of the Christian faith to bolster people’s belief. Each gift symbolizes a different aspect of Christianity. The partridge in the pear tree symbolizes Jesus Christ; two turtle doves mean the New and Old Testaments; three French hens stand for Faith, Hope and Charity; four calling birds are the four Gospels; eight maids are the eight beatitudes; ten lords – ten commandments; and eleven are the faithful apostles. I thought 12 … would stand for the disciples. No, they mean the twelve points of the Apostles’ Creed.

Whatever the history of this jingly song may be, it will go on being sung at the season just passed, translated or adapted to many language and countries.

Shakespeare’s play

Twelfth Night, or What You Will , a romantic comedy about a pair of sibling twins lost in a sea storm and reunited at the very end, was written by William Shakespeare in 1601 or the next year. It was to bring to an end the Christmas season’s entertainment in the city. Shakespeare, as is documented, went through three periods in his writing which to large measure reflect his emotions, love life and well being. The most prosperous was 1592 -1601; the Tragic Period 1600 – 1610; and the Later Period where he mellowed and wrote lighter plays was 1610-1616. They also ‘reveal much about the development of his vision as a writer.’ It was the last years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign of England (1588-1603) succeeded by the first Stuart king – James I (1603-1625). The first recorded public performance of Twelfth Night was on February 2, 1602, at Candlemas, the formal end of Christmastide in the year’s calendar. The play was not published until its inclusion in the 1623 First Folio.

Interesting tidbit I add here. Samuel Pepys thought it was a ’silly play’ but the pits in the Shakespeare theatre would have resounded loudly to the action in the play, especially the jeering of, and leading Malvolio to wear yellow garters and make a fool of himself. Definitely playing to the gallery! It was first staged in ‘modern’ times in Drury Lane in 1741.

Commercial or tradesmen’s context

Many English words are either adaptations or borrowings from other languages, while most others have roots in a foreign language – Latin being the commonest. The name for twelve things – ‘a dozen ‘ has its origin in the Latin word ‘duodecim’ which over time corrupted itself to the sound of dozen.

A baker’s dozen is thirteen and derived in mediaeval times when the law of England specified the weight of bread loaves and any baker who supplied less to a customer was in for severe punishment. Thus precautionary bakers would include 13 buns or loaves of bread or whatever when a dozen was asked for.

I wonder whether twelve is a lucky number preceding as it does the considered to be unlucky thirteen. And why is this number unlucky? We well know it is thus because thirteen sat at the Last Supper and Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus the next day.

Thirteen full moons occur some years. The extra full moon poya day in the Buddhist calendar is given the prefix ‘adi’ to the name of the poya that it follows or comes after. Thus we have the Vesak Poya in May and then maybe another poya before Poson in June. The extra poya is named ‘adi Vesak poya.’ The lunar calendar has thirteen full moon days every year.

Finally a silly contextual connection. In some ancient cultures13 was an unlucky number representing femininity. How come? The lunar cycle was 13×28 =364 and this was connected to a woman’s menstrual cycle. Trust men in their might to denigrate women! However the solar calendar did away with the lunar.

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