Friday, 2 January 2009

On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me... eight maids a-swimming!

Some people believe that the carol ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ is one of the so-called catechism songs, with the list of gifts acting as a coded message to represent significant elements of the Catholic catechism.

In this case, the eight maids a-milking stand for the eight beatitudes mentioned by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, as follows:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall posses the land.

Blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice's sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

However, for some the eight maids a-milking address two of the major themes of fifteenth and sixteenth century English celebrations and parties during the Christmas holidays – those of food and romance.

Until the advent of refrigeration, milk was not a common drink because it spoiled quickly. However, milk based products that did not spoil, such as cheese, sour milk and custards were prized treats. Cheese and sour milk are the result of processes that expose milk to so-called friendly bacteria which convert the milk to a state where it can be preserved for a longer period and is also tasty. Custard is similar but this involves the cooking of the milk, which kills the harmful bacteria thereby extending the period during which it can be safely consumed.
The maids, of course, refer to the women who would milk the cows to obtain the milk in the first place. In times past, the milking of cows or goats was typically a job for women. However, the term maid is also the shortened form of maiden which is a young, unmarried, woman. By combining the images of maiden and milk, it is easy to see how this particular gift possibly has more to do with romance than with cows!

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