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On the third day of Christmas...

"And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." 1 Corinthians 13.13

Believe it or not debate rages (maybe that's too strong a term, "there is conflicting opinion...") concerning the symbolism of the three French hens. Do they refer to the gifts the Magi brought to the baby Jesus - gold, frankincense, myrrh? That would be appropriate, seasonally speaking. Or are they associated with the cardinal virtues of faith, hope and love which feature in Paul's great overture of love in his first letter to the Corinthian church? This is the more habitual interpretation and there is a seasonal link here too, though one must dig a little deeper...

In the older English of the Authorised, or King James, version of the Bible "love" is rendered "charity". Charity evokes the idea of giving and thereby secures its association with this season of goodwill and generosity. A victim of its own success? Charity became so closely linked with one aspect of its meaning as to lose its moorings as a word conveying the idea of "love expressing itself in generosity towards others". It morphed into a separate term denoting giving to good causes. This is a pity because driving wedge between charity's original meanings - love and generosity - diminishes both.

What is not in dispute is that the French hens referred to in the carol are of the Faverolles breed. Like charity in its original meaning, there are two sides to this creature: it is succulent and therefore good to eat and it is docile and therefore makes a good pet for children. That represents a conflict of interest as divisive as that original meaning of charity! But is that not the story of our lives, that we cannot have our cake and eat it? We have to make choices. Or do we? Sometimes it is possible to live with the tension of two conflicting impulses but that is not a comfortable position to occupy...



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