TWELFTH NIGHT AND THE TWELVE TENETS OF MY FAITH

Tradition and social habit derived from pagan custom die hard and there is no mirth without mischief, so they say.

When I was just a young boy, I learnt to recite the twelve tenets of my faith.

I was born into a catholic family in the middle of the sixteenth century in a provincial market town called Stratford upon Avon in the mid-shires of England.

Throughout my life, England was declared to be a protestant state and it was forbidden to practice my faith in a public place.

In fact, even practicing it at home in private was considered taboo.

I learnt English, Latin and Greek at my local Grammar School which I was privileged to attend because my Father held high office in the town.

I studied History there too which was a fascinating subject to me.  My tutor, Simon Hunt, often complimented me on my uncanny ability to comprehend details in a manner beyond my tender years.

Somehow I just knew that my passion for history plus the background of my family from farming stock and the strength of my faith would shape my adult life.

Many a day I had spent at the forest of Arden or along the banks of the river in town where I could engage with nature and be as free as the birds I could see flying in the sky.

There was not a bird I thought I did not know or could not identify with.

When my father fell upon harsh times and I was sent away as a teenager to a catholic seminary in the north of France, one could say that it was kind of the beginning of the rest of my life.

I would step foot on the battlefield at Agincourt where my Shakespearean ancestor had fought on behalf of King Henry V.

I would visit the small town of Domremy in the north-east of France to feel some affinity with the young woman, Jeanne d’Arc,  who was born there one hundred and fifty years before me and who had left her own all too brief legacy in the annals of history.

And I would see a partridge in a pear tree for the first time.

It was a defining moment in my life when the meaning of my catholic faith came home to me, on foreign pastures.

I could readily relate why this beautiful gaming bird would spend hours in a pear tree, feigning injury as a decoy to protect her young from a constant stream of potential predators.

How odd it sounded then to hear the same chant as mine ringing in my ears but yet spoken by others with different tone and words.

The relationship between the partridge and the pear tree was considered supreme in my faith.

A partridge.  Two turtle doves.  Three French hens.  Four colly blackbirds.  Five golden ringed pheasants.  Six geese a-laying and seven swimming swans.

Memorise or forfeit I say.

The game does not, of course, end there.

Eight maids are milking to produce from the dairy.

Nine ladies are dancing to the sound of the music.

Ten lords are leaping at the prospect of winning a ladies hand but one will not be lucky.

Eleven pipers pipe the music for the ten lords and nine ladies to entwine while twelve drummers are drumming the finale, one beat for every tenet of my faith.

Only several centuries later in the year 1909 would an Englishman named Frederic Austin compose a melody which would be fitting for the chant which became labelled as ‘the twelve days of Christmas’ and which would be sung forever thereafter by protestants and catholics alike.

It seems funny now that a nonesense song of secular origin should strike such a cord.

I had a dream once but it may have been only a vision during my awakened hours.

I allowed my imagination to run a riot about a shipwreck in a faraway place which was,  in truth,  much closer to home than you might think about town folk and royalty.

Stratford upon Avon was such a wonderful place to grow up as a child.

There was an effervescence in the life of its tradesmen and craftsmen, a magic in the forest of Arden and a serenity about the Avon river which flowed calmly through the town.

Folk drank ale in the taverns, Inns accommodated visitors while mummers, pageant wagons and keepers of exotic wonders brought social entertainment to the town like never before.

An orchard was never very far away either.  Plum pudding, apple pie, pear crumble were constants on the menu.

I knew the meaning only too well of the fruits of the earth.

As a catholic, I wholeheartedly embraced both the Old and New Testament of the Christian bible, the Holy Trinity of Faith, Hope and Charity; the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Not only that but I felt at ease with the ten commandments, the ethos of the eleven disciples (excluding Judas) who followed Jesus and course the twelve tenets of my faith.

Nothing could or would change that.

The twelve days of Christmas were celebrated from the twenty fifth of December until Epihany on the 5th January.

What I had always understood this meant was that three wise men, called Magi, had come from the east and followed a bright star to bring gifts for a new born child who was proclaimed as the son of God but in reality was the first born of Judeans Joseph and Mary.

The new born child, born on 25th December, was named Joshua and was baptized with holy water on the twelfth day after his birth, 5th January.

Christians of whatever denomination, protestant or christian, would join in the revelry which climaxed on the twelfth night with gift-giving.

There always comes a time, it seems, when politics are in conflict with expression of faith to the detriment of the common man who wishes no more than to go about his daily life in peace, dignity and honour.

Catholics were perceived as a threat to the new protestant state and so it came to pass during my lifetime that the catholic manner of celebration on the twelfth night became forbidden.

A failed catholic insurrection in 1605 (better known as the Gunpowder Plot) against the new King, James I, would lead to severe constraints against catholics.

At the peak of my literary powers and I could say that William Shakespeare was a household name in theatrical circles, I would be inspired to write a play which I called ‘Twelfth Night’ .

The play was performed in private chambers first of all before a failing Queen Elizabeth and an Italian Duke, Orsino, who by special request, was given a role in the play for his own egotism.

There would be frivolity and revelry and all would be revealed in time on the twelfth night.

That would be the last twelfth night in my lifetime.

And that, my friend, is the Gospel Truth.

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