The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Chants of the Creed

Source: Lina Eckenstein, Comparative Studies in Nursery Rhymes (London: Duckworth & Co., 1906), pp. 143-151.

See: Notes on the Twelve Days of Christmas



THE game of Twelve Days, especially in one French version, shows that instruction was conveyed by the cumulative mode of recitation. There are many pieces enlarging on matters of belief—Hebrew, Christian, Druidical, and heathen—which in the same way associate numbers with objects. The comparison of these pieces suggests that they are all derived from one original source. They may fitly be termed Chants of the Creed.

One of these cumulative chants is included in the Hebrew service for the night of the Passover, which is called Echod mi jodea, "He who knows."[55] It is recited to a monotonous tune after the return of the family from celebration, either by the[Pg 144] master of the house or by the assembled company. The dialogue form, I am told, is no longer observed. The piece begins:—

Who knoweth One?—I, saith Israel, know One.One is God, who is over heaven and earth.Who knoweth Two?—I, saith Israel, know Two.Two tables of the covenant; but One is our God who is over the heavens and the earth....

And so forth to the last verse, which is as follows:—

Who knoweth thirteen?—I, saith Israel, know thirteen: Thirteen divine attributes—twelve tribes—eleven stars—ten commandments—nine months preceding childbirth—eight days preceding circumcision—seven days of the week—six books of the Mishnah—five books of the Law—four matrons—three patriarchs—two tables of the covenant—but One is our God, who is over the heavens and the earth.

The same chant adapted to matters of Christian belief, but carried only from one to twelve, is current also in Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, German, and Danish. Among ourselves it is set as a song. But the objects which are associated with the numbers are not uniformly the same, and this renders it probable that the chants were composed independently of one another. This view[Pg 145] is supported by the fact that some of the items that are named in the Christian chants are not Christian, and are, in fact, identical with the items named in the entirely heathen chants.

The Latin version of the Chant of the Creed has been traced back to the second half of the sixteenth century. Its words were set to music in a motet for thirteen voices by Theodor Clinius (d. 1602), a Venetian by birth (E., p. 408). Another Latin version of the chant goes back to 1650. The chant begins:—

Dic mihi quid unus?

—Unus est Jesus Christus [or Deus] qui regnat in aeternum [or coelis]. (A., I, 420.)

"Tell me, what is One? One is Jesus Christ [or God] who reigns in eternity [or in heaven]."

The answers further explain two as the testaments, three as the patriarchs, four as the evangelists, five as the books of Moses, six as the water-jugs of Cana in Galilee, seven as the gifts of the spirit (or the candelabra lit before God), eight as the beatitudes, nine as the orders (or choirs of the angels), ten as the commandments, eleven as the disciples (or stars seen by Joseph), twelve[Pg 146] as the articles of the faith (or the apostles).

The Chant of the Creed as recited in Spain (A., II, 142) is set in the same form, and explains the numbers in much the same manner, except that six are the days of the Creation, and eleven are eleven thousand virgins. Another version (A., II, 104) associates the Virgin with one, the three Maries with three, while nine, like the Hebrew chant, indicates the months of expectancy of the Virgin. In a Portuguese version also, nine are the months of Christ's becoming, and eleven are eleven thousand virgins (A., II, 102).

Throughout Italy and in Sicily the Chant of the Creed is known as Le dodici parole della Verità, "the twelve words of truth." They are generally put into the lips of the popular saint, Nicolas of Bari, who is said to have defeated the evil intentions of Satan by teaching them. These Italian chants for the most part agree with the Latin chant already cited, except that two in the Abruzzi is associated with the sun and the moon; five is explained as the wounds of Jesus or[Pg 147] of St. Francis, and eleven stands for the articles of the Catholic faith (A., I, 419; II, 97).

In Denmark the Chant of the Creed is put into the lips of St. Simeon, and begins:—

Stat op, Sante Simeon, og sig mig, hvad een er?

"Stand forth, St. Simeon, and tell me, what is one."

The explanations in this case are strictly Christian, Jesus Christ standing for One. The souls saved by God from the ark (sjaele frelste Gud udi Arken) stand for eight (Gt., II, 68).

In Languedoc also the chant is current in a Christian adaptation which agrees with the Latin, except that the Trinity stands for three; the wounds of Jesus, as in the Italian chant, stand for five; the lights in the temple stand for six; and the joys of our Lady stand for seven (M. L., p. 478).

From Europe the Chant of the Creed has been carried to Canada, where a version is sung in French to a monotonous tune in four beats at a formal kind of dance, called a ronde religieuse—a religious round. To this dance six couples stand up; each dancer represents a number. To the sound[Pg 148] of their singing they move in a chain, each person turning first to the right, then to the left. When number six is reached in singing, and every time that six recurs in the chant, the dancing stops, and to the words "six urnes de vin remplies," the dancers who represent even numbers turn first to the right, then to the left, and make a deep bow, while those that represent uneven numbers perform the same ceremony the other way about (G., p. 298). Then the dancing is resumed. This figure, judging from the description, exactly corresponds to the Grand Chain in Lancers, except that six couples dance instead of four or eight.

In the Canadian chant the explanations of the numbers are all Christian, except that for eleven they say eleven thousand virgins, which agrees with the virgins of the Spanish and Portuguese chants. These eleven thousand virgins are mentioned also in a version of the chant current in Zürich, which, unlike the others, carries the numbers to fifteen. It enumerates Christian matters similar to those already named as far as nine choirs of angels, and further associates ten[Pg 149] with thousands of knights, eleven with thousands of virgins, the apostles with twelve, the disciples with thirteen, the helpers in need (Nothelfer) with fourteen, the mysteries with fifteen. This chant is set in the old way of question and answer, and the answers are recited in cumulative form (R., p. 268).

The Chant of the Creed in a late development is preserved in the form of a religious poem among ourselves which is called A New Dyall. [see: One God, One Baptisme, And One Fayth] Two versions of it are preserved in the MS. Harleian 5937, which dates from about the year 1625. They have been printed by F. S. A. Sandys among his Christmas Carols. The refrain of the one recalls the celebration of Twelve Days:—

In those twelve days, in those twelve days, let us be glad,
For God of His power hath all things made.

In both pieces the dialogue form is dropped, and there is no attempt at cumulation.

One God, one baptism, and one faith,
One truth there is the Scripture saith;
[Pg 150]
Two Testaments, the old and new,
We do acknowledge to be true;
Three persons are in Trinity,

Which make one God in Unity;
Four sweet evangelists there are
Christ's birth, life, death, which do declare;
Five senses like five kings, maintain
In every man a several reign;
Six days to labour is not wrong,
For God Himself did work so long;
Seven liberal arts has God sent down
With divine skill man's soul to crown;
Eight in Noah's ark alive were found,
When (in a word) the World lay drowned.
Nine Muses (like the heaven's nine spheres)
With sacred tunes entice our ears;
Ten statutes God to Moses gave
Which, kept or broke, do spoil or save;
Eleven with Christ in heaven do dwell,
The twelfth for ever burns in hell;
Twelve are attending on God's Son;
Twelve make our Creed, "the dyall's done."[56]

The objects named in this poem agree in most cases with those of the Latin chant, but six, there associated with the water-jugs in Cana of Galilee, is here associated with the days of the Creation, which correspond with the six days of the Creation of the Spanish Chant of the Creed, and with the six working days of the week of a heathen dialogue story[Pg 151] to which we shall return later. The number eight is here associated with the persons saved in the ark of Noah, as in the Chant of the Creed which is current in Denmark.


Footnote 55.  Tylor, E. B., Primitive Culture, I, 87, citing Mendes, Service for the First Nights of the Passover, 1862.  Return

Footnote 56. Sandys, F. S. A.: Christmas Carols, p. 59 ff.  Return

Editor's Note:

See: Eckenstein - Chants of Numbers (1906).

Print Page Return Home Page Close Window

If you would like to help support Hymns and Carols of Christmas, please click on the button below and make a donation.

Related Hymns and Carols