"A Partridge in a Pear Tree"
Is this a hidden reference to the Blessed Sacrament?
Louis J. Tofari
We all know the famous English carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas, and its first stanza:
On the First Day of Christmas
My True Love gave to me
A partridge in a pear tree.
Many are also aware that this song was a secret-catechism developed by persecuted Catholics during the English Reformation. In particular, when belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament was forbidden.
Now, in relation to the Christmas Communion that I mentioned in a previous article, I would like to suggest what is the actual meaning of the famous first stanza.
The "partridge in a pear tree" is commonly interpreted as Jesus Christ (or God) Who protects His children as a mother hen protects her chicks under her wing. However, this interpretation seems to be at odds with the full stanza, particularly with the sentiment of "my True Love gave to me" and thus appears rather forced.
I would like to posit that the first stanza actually refers to the Blessed Sacrament, and that this meaning would have been obvious to English Catholics. But how could have this been missed by more modern interpreters? Very easily, since the two mentioned objects—the partridge and the pear tree—are virtually extinct in English churches today.
The two absent items in question are the hanging pyx and the rood screen, once present in nearly every English church of the Middle Ages. Now when we couple these missing pieces with the mindset of English Catholics along with the sentiment expressed in the first stanza, the meaning of that line becomes rather obvious (at least to me).
So what were these missing items once commonly seen in English churches?
The first one is the hanging pyx, an ancient and particularly English-favored practice of reserving the Blessed Sacrament suspended above the high altar and often in a vessel (or pyx) shaped as a bird (such as a dove)—hence the veiled meaning of the partridge. As this practice of reserving the Holy Eucharist was not very secure—especially after the Protestant Reformation—it was eventually ended in favor of the locking tabernacle secured to an altar.
The second missing item is the rood screen, a structure once present in nearly every English church, but now absent because the Protestants destroyed the majority of them as they viewed it as a representation of the Catholic Faith. The rood screen was a tall structure that divided the sanctuary from the nave and often was made of wood. In addition to its central entrance, it was also usually pierced with lattice work and carvings, and so when gazing through it, could appear as branches of a tree.
Hence, when viewed from the nave of the church, the hanging pyx ("partridge") containing the Blessed Sacrament ("my True Love" of which He "gave" Himself in Holy Communion) would often appear to rest within the filigree work of the rood screen (or branches of the "pear tree"). This hidden meaning of the Blessed Sacrament also fulfills the primary importance that the first stanza should have in the song.
If this interpretation is indeed correct (and it certainly makes the most sense to me), thus we see here the fulfillment of the first stanza of the famous Twelve Days of Christmas referring to the Christmas Communion.
1 For more about the fascinating topic of rood screens, see A Treatise on Chancel Screens and Rood Lofts by Augustus Pugin (1851) at Archive.org.