Monday, December 31, 2012

Those Twelve Days of Christmas

It's the seventh day of Christmas. Do you know where your swans are swimming?

I look forward to reading the Christmas Price Index every year. That's the list detailing how much the traditional twelve days worth of holiday gifts would cost in today's economy. It was instituted in 1984 by Pittsburgh's own PNC Bank, is updated annually, and gets attention whenever the media needs some holiday filler. Perhaps this year worries about the manufactured drama related to the Fiscal Cliff have eclipsed communal concerns about the cost of a partridge in a pear tree, because I've not seen much made of the rising costs of festive fowl and revelry. The folks at PNC tell us that if you're looking to gift your true love carol-style, you'll pay $25431.18 this year for one of each item, and a grand total of $107300.24 for all 364 gifts. There was no report on the tax ramifications of those purchases for the 1% who can afford them.

Fiscal cliff doomsdaying aside, this holiday season I've seen a fair amount of abuse heaped upon the Twelve Days of Christmas song. It's apparently a leading contender for stupidest holiday carol ever (at our house the winners are anything by the Jingle Dogs, that Santa Baby song, and Frosty the Snowman. I particularly loathe Frosty, although my bias is always against any character who sounds like he needs to blow his nose. Pooh Bear, I'm looking at you).

Now I'll grant you that the Twelve Days begs to be parodied. Mock-worthy as it is, there exist countless versions with lyrics of various degrees of cleverness.  Despite that, I'm going on record to state that it's a childhood favorite of mine.

Back in the days before the Internet made searching lyrics not even a Thing, I was proud of my ability to memorize and recite the lyrics through sheer dogged repetition. I can't say that my family was enamored of my hard work, but I was pleased with myself. I still like to hear the carol sung because I appreciate the historical continuity it represents.

Twelve days have made up the Christmas season in Western and Eastern Christian church traditions, with the aptly-named Twelfth Night falling on Epiphany. (The Western church counts the days beginning on Christmas Day so that Epiphany falls on January 5th, while in the Eastern tradition the "first day of Christmas" is December 26th and Epiphany thus falls on January 6th). And Epiphany is celebrated as the time when the Wise Guys, I mean The Magi, arrived to present gifts to the young Jesus. The Bible stories never say how many wise visitors there were, and some Eastern traditions even say that there were twelve. I like the idea of an even dozen bearing twelve gifts, for a mystical total of 364 gifts, one for each day of the year except, uhm, Christmas.

Journey of the Magi, Benozzo Gozzoli, 1459-62

There are those who have attached religious significance to the carol and believe we can trace its origins to 16th century England. That was the time of the Protestant Reformation, that period of religious revolution that Henry VIII unintentionally provoked by declaring himself head of the Church in his country so he could grant himself the divorce that the Pope in Rome denied for, well, complicated political reasons. Those who hold to this theory believe that the Twelve Days of Christmas carol was mnemonically constructed to help educate the Roman Catholic faithful in the doctrines of their faith. Supposedly the carol allowed them to remain under the radar of would-be persecutors, since its repetitive nature assured that they'd not have to write down anything incriminating that could be used as evidence against them. Adherents to this theory believe that the carol's 'true love' is God and the 'partridge in a pear tree' is Christ on the cross, while the 'three French hens' represent the Trinity or maybe the three theological virtues of Faith Hope and Charity or perhaps even the three gifts of the Magi. And the list goes on: the two Biblical Testaments are represented, as are the four Gospels, five books of the Torah, seven Sacraments, eight Beatitudes, nine hierarchies of angels, ten Commandments, eleven faithful apostles, and (deep breath) the twelve articles of the Apostles' Creed. Or maybe that's the twelve tribes of Israel?

Unfortunately for those who like their holiday carols fraught with religious symbolism, there's not a shred of documentation to stand as contemporary evidence to back up this theory.

The idea seems to have had its virgin birth in the 1970s and gained widespread acceptance following a 1992 article in the Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.  I like well-done symbolism as much as anyone but this? Isn't all that. The catechetical associations that the carol purportedly spells out were NOT unique to the Roman Church, not when compared to the beliefs of the newly-formed English-centric church (at least not at the point in time in question). They thus didn't merit the creation of a cumulative carol of dubious musicianship to remember them by; everyone then knew this stuff.  It's an appealing folkloric explanation, to be sure, but there's no logical sense to the theory. Still, these lyrical religious attributions are repeated as if they were Gospel truths themselves.

The real history of the song is rich enough without added associations. Christmastide has historically been a time of twelves. The twelve days of the season were filled with feasts and frolics climaxing on the aforementioned Twelfth Night, which was for much of Christian history a more festive occasion than Christmas itself.  After all, birthday celebrations are more recent cultural customs, even Divine birthdays. Christmas wasn't made much of until Victorian times, whereas before then it was Epiphany that represented the revelation of Jesus, both traditionally as an infant to the Magi and liturgically through the symbolism of baptism in the River Jordan and that first miracle at Canaa.

Different customs have evolved over time and place for the Christmastide season, with some giving gifts only on Christmas Day, some solely on Twelfth Night, and some lucky souls receiving gifts on all of the twelve nights. I have my doubts as to whether the latter received partridges, turtle doves, or five golden rings (though I'd personally not complain about the latter, unless the lyric is referring to five ring-necked pheasants as some have theorized).

Here in the States we've largely lost the traditions of the Twelve Days of Christmas, although the passing of Epiphany is often considered to be the traditional holiday de-decorating date. Of course if you live in an area that celebrates Carnival like New Orleans, you're just getting started on Twelfth Night and it's thus not an ending but a beginning to revelry!

The origins of the Twelve Days of Christmas carol itself are truly lost to time and memory, but most likely it began as the musical accompaniment to a medieval “memories and forfeits game” in which a leader recited verses that followers had to repeat exactly or else forfeit a sweet or kiss or pay some other penalty. The carol was presented this way in its first known publication, a 1780 children's book called Mirth Without Mischief. Musicologists have suggested that the carol has French origins, given some of the items mentioned in the song. For example, the kinds of partridges which roost in trees were introduced from France to England in the late 1770s and the song definitely predates their introduction. There are even some theories that the "in a pear tree" lyric is a bastardization of "and a partridge, un perdis" (perdis being French for partridge). It's a medieval mondegreen!



So let's face it, this song is really no more than what it appears to be: a fun secular carol about music, dancing, and getting stuff -- albeit weird stuff like calling birds. Wait, calling birds? No, not calling birds, no matter what you think you hear. Remember that it was a point of pride for me as a wee Sue to get the lyrics right, so I am proud to inform you that the lyric is not "calling birds" but "colly" birds. We can blame English composer Frederic Austin for publishing the arrangement in 1909 that we sing today, along with codifying the substitution of "calling birds" for the "colly birds."  Time was when "colly" was another word for black, and so the updated lyric would be translated as "four blackbirds." I know, that doesn't resonate as well. I console myself by thinking of my black Rough Collie dog as a colly collie, and carry on.



The Twelve Days of Christmas song has captured the popular imagination, for good or ill, in all its variations and parodies. Several countries including the United States have even issued postage stamps to represent the gifts sung about in the carol, which you can see on THIS SITE.

But it's really all much ado about birds, maids, lords, feasting and revelry, like any good party should be. Whatever holiday you celebrate and whatever meaning you attach to your symbols, I wish you great joy of it, and a happy new year, too!

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