Christmas and visiting churches go hand in hand. From carol services, through school nativity plays, Christingles and Christmas tree festivals and onto midnight mass and Christmas day morning services; it’s impossible to think about Christmas without visiting a church. The Twelve Days of Christmas was first published as a rhyme in 1780, with the tune coming from an arrangement of a traditional folk song in 1909. The twelve days start with Christmas Day.

A partridge in a pear tree

There are many wonderful bird and animal carvings to discover in churches, including a lovely partridge in the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, West Barsham, Norfolk. On the other hand, there is only one Pear Tree Church. In the ocean city of Southampton, it is the oldest Anglican church in the world, being the first church built and consecrated after the Reformation.

Pear Tree Church, Southampton

Two turtle doves

The dove is common in churches. Often found in stained glass, they are also found in carvings and in the rich embroidery on furnishings and vestments. In St Etheldreda’s church, Holborn, London, is a statue of St. Anne Line, martyred at Tyburn in 1601. Shakespeare wrote his metaphysical poem ‘Phoenix and Turtle’ to commemorate Anne’s burial. Anne is the phoenix (representing immortality) while her husband Roger Line was the turtledove (representing fidelity).

St Etheldreda, Holborn

Three french hens

Hens and cockerels are also common, often found atop a spire in the form of a golden weathervane. The cockerel is such an ancient symbol for a weathervane that one appears in the Bayeux Tapestry, being added to Westminster Abbey. Many churches, and churchyards, are also havens for live wild or domestic animals. Some have church cats or sheep to graze the churchyard grass. But, only one has a welcome hen; St Mary, Roecliffe, Yorkshire.

St Mary, Roecliffe

Four calling birds

Although we now sing ‘four calling birds', the rhyme originally spoke of ‘colly birds’. Colly is an Old English term for 'black,' from the word 'colliery,' meaning coal mine. Colly birds, refers to the blackbird. The church in Blackbird Leys, Oxfordshire was one of the first Local Ecumenical projects in the country. Built in 1965, it is one of the most distinctive buildings in Oxford, with its curved walls and roof.

The Holy Family, Blackbird Leys

Five gold rings

Churches can be thought austere and plain, with rows of regimented pews and plain whitewashed walls. However, many were richly decorated with paint and gold leaf, and most have glittering brasses and silver candlesticks. Known as the Jewellers Church, St Paul’s sits in a Georgian square. Its Millennium window incorporates the Birmingham Assay Office hallmarks for gold, silver and platinum and a special Millennium assay mark with angels pouring molten metal from a crucible.

St Paul, Birmingham

Six geese a laying

St Werburgh was an Anglo Saxon princess, born around 650AD. She was a nun at the convent of her aunt, St Etheldreda. Her most famous story is of a goose restored to life, although there is another tale in which she banished all geese from a village. In the Middle Ages, the pilgrim badge for visiting the Shrine of St Werburgh, now on display behind the altar at Chester Cathedral, was a basket of geese.

Christ & the Blessed Virgin Mary (Cathedral), Chester

Seven swans a swimming

Although many churches close to water may have visits from real life swans in their churchyards, the church of All Saints, Warlingham, Surrey has another swan within its grounds. Sir Joseph Wilson Swan FRS is buried in the churchyard, He was the early developer of a successful incandescent light bulb and the person who supplied bulbs for the world's first homes and public buildings (Savoy Theatre in 1881) to be lit with electric light.

All Saints, Warlingham

Eight maids a milking

Glastonbury Tor has been a site of religious significance for over 1000 years and is known as being one of the most spiritual sites in the country. As well as its close links to Christianity, its pagan beliefs are still very much celebrated. Above the door on the west side of the tower is a carved panel, depicting a maid milking a cow.

St Michael’s Tower, Glastonbury

Nine ladies dancing

Many a church and church hall host regular ladies dancing; from tap to ballet, and Zumba to line dancing. Oakenhoof and the Black Nan Band are an all age, open folk arts group with many more than nine ladies dancing in Todmorden Cloggies and Littleborough Oakenhoof Cloggers. They perform regularly in Todmorden Unitarian church, which also hosts an annual folk festival in April.

Unitarian Church, Todmorden

Ten lords a leaping

The ‘great and good’ of society often enjoyed the privilege of being commemorated within the church. Their monuments can provide a wealth of information about wealth, fashion, their appearance, the way people lived, and how they hoped to be remembered. Whilst there is no elaborate memorial, All Hallows in Harthill, Yorkshire has a fascinating trapdoor entrance to a crypt where Thomas Osborne, who became the first Duke of Leeds, and his successors are buried.

All Hallows, Harthill

Eleven pipers piping

John Egerton Christmas Piper (1903 - 1992) was a unique painter, printmaker and designer of stained glass windows. Piper’s interest in glass began at 10 when he started to trace stained glass windows near home. When designing his own he used abstraction and colour to enrich his works. Working with Patrick Reyntiens, he created the baptistery window for the new Coventry Cathedral during the 1950s. It has 195 lights of stained glass in primary colours.

Coventry Cathedral, Coventry

Twelve dummers drumming

The twelve days of Christmas, with its pipers and dummers, can only be completed by the Kirk of The Royal Regiment of Scotland. Canongate Kirk is widely held to be the military church for Edinburgh, with its historic connections with The Royal Scots and The King’s Own Scottish Borderers. The Royal Regiment of Scotland has inherited a wealth of Regimental music and each battalion has its own Band of Pipes and Drums manned by soldiers.

Canongate Kirk, Edinburgh

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