On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me… two turtle doves? That’s nice, but why are there two of them? Is this some kind of trick? What if one of them isn’t a dove at all, but just something that looks like a dove? What if it’s not a bird at all, but someTHING else!?! AIEEEE!!!!
Blasted Things, they’re worse than roaches, almost impossible to get rid of once one of them gets in the house.
Fortunately, that’s not really what’s going on with the two turtle doves. Along with the usual connotation of peace that a dove symbolizes, that line from The Twelve Days of Christmas could also be a reference to the practice of sacrificing two doves mentioned in the Bible. As the Biblical Archaeology Society points out, “Several passages of the Torah (especially Leviticus) specify occasions that require the sacrifice of two doves (or young pigeons)—either as a guilt offering or to purify oneself after a period of ritual impurity (including the birth of a child). Several columbaria, or dovecotes, have been excavated in the City of David and the Jerusalem environs. These towers were undoubtedly used to raise doves for sacrificial offerings, as well as for the meat and fertilizer they provided—a popular practice in the Hellenistic and Roman periods that continued into the modern period.”
As pointed out in the Gospel of Luke, Mary and Joseph followed this tradition after the birth of Jesus. “When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, they took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord,’ and to offer the sacrifice of ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,’ in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord… When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.”
Interestingly enough, this passage is the only one in the New Testament which directly alludes to the financial status of the Holy Family. While Joseph is referred to as a craftsman (tektonos) in the Gospel of Matthew, that could mean anything from a day laborer to a master in his field. But the offering of two turtle doves, which Leviticus points out was a practice reserved for the poor who couldn’t afford one dove and one lamb, strongly suggests the Holy Family wasn’t very well off. That doesn’t mean they were dirt poor as Joseph obviously had a job, but they weren’t rolling in the dough either.
So who knows, by giving you two turtle doves on the second day of Christmas, your true love might be wishing you peace, but it’s also possible she could be suggesting that (a) she’s too poor to give you anything else, or (b) you might just have your very own Nativity on the way. Hopefully it’s ‘a’, because if it’s ‘b’ then you’ve got some confessing to do as the golden rings don’t show up for three more verses. Still, if it is ‘b’, at least you’ve already got the two turtle doves as a guilt offering.
You know what, let’s just stick with the peace thing.