As a child, one of my favourite Christmas carols was the Twelve Days of Christmas; it still is. It was the repetition of the verses and the challenge of getting them right in reverse order that attracted me; and of course singing made learning the lyrics so much fun. When I finally managed to get all the verses right and sing the whole song on my own, I felt so triumphant!
It never occurred to me to make sense of the lyrics until the other day. Yes, hmm…only over half a century after I’d been singing it! The first verses are devoted to birds, whereas the latter are of people. And what in the world are calling birds? Well thanks to Google I’ve found out a few things – all in the spirit of fun. And incurable curiosity.
Of course lots of people more curious and more aware than I have been pondering the lyrics for far longer. The most common interpretation is that the song contains symbols to impart Catholic catechism during the Elizabethan period, according to Canadian hymnologist Hugh D. McKellar. Catholics were then persecuted and forbidden to practise their religion in public until prohibition was officially rescinded in the 1800s. It appears McKellar later confessed to making it all up. Nevertheless, let’s have a look at the symbols.
1st day: my true love sent to me a partridge in a pear tree. A Christian’s true love is God, who sent a partridge (i.e., Jesus). As a parent partridge sacrifices itself by luring a predator away from the nest, so God sacrificed Jesus. The pear tree, as McKellar interpets it, is the tree of true faith, unlike the similar-looking though guileful apple.
2nd day: two turtle doves = Old and New Testaments.
3rd day: three French hens = the three wise men; also faith, hope, and charity.
4th day: four calling birds = four prophets; four horsemen of the apocalypse.
5th day: five gold rings = the five books of Law.
6th day: six geese a-laying = six days of creation.
7th day: seven swans a-swimming = seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
8th day: eight maids a-milking = eight epistles, eight beatitudes, eight recommended times for Communion.
9th day: nine ladies dancing = nine fruits of the Holy Spirit, nine ranks of angels.
10th day: ten lords a-leaping = the Ten Commandments.
11th day: eleven pipers piping = the eleven remaining disciples.
12th day: twelve drummers drumming = the twelve minor prophets.
Ok, well and good. But I did mention a Passover song. Where does it fit in? The song Echad Mi Yodea (“One, Who Knows One”) is sung after the reading of the Haggadah — the retelling of the Exodus from Egypt. Like the Twelve Days of Christmas and Green Grow the Rushes O (or Ho), Echad Mi Yodea is a cumulative song, that is, the verses build up on the previous ones. However, instead of 12, the Hebrew song counts to 13. And the recurring refrain is the first verse: Echad, Eloheinu, Eloheinu, she ba shamaim u ba aretz. “One, our God, our God, who is in the heavens and on earth.”
The Passover version does have a few parallels with McKellar’s — one God; two tablets of the commandments; three forefathers (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob); four matriarchs (Sarah, Leah, Rebecca, Rachel); five books of the Torah; six orders of the Mishnah; seven days to the Sabbath; eight days from birth to circumcision; nine months to birth; ten commandments; eleven stars in Joseph’s dream; twelve tribes of Israel; thirteen attributes of God.
The Catholic and Jewish symbols are clear, but I’m stubborn. Surely there must be some underlying folk tradition for the choice of birds and cows being milked and so on. This search is looking like a wild goose chase (ha, ha).
So onwards. There is a Catholic saint called St. Lambert, and in the German city of Münster it was the tradition to sing songs to celebrate his feast day, which used to be the 24th of December. For some reason, his feast day was moved to September, but the tradition of singing songs on Christmas Eve has remained to this day. One of those songs, sung in 1858 by a student from Arnsberg, as recorded by Ludwig Erk, was Guter Freund, Ich Frage Dich (“Good Friend, I Ask You”). It goes: Good friend, I ask you. Best friend, what do you ask me? Tell me, what is the number one? One times one is only God, who lives suspended between heaven and earth. This phrasing does recall the Passover version.
It seems variants of this song had been circulating from the 1700s throughout the area of what would later become Germany, including a parody sung by students. An example from 1852 goes: What does an honest girl eat all alone on the sixth morning — “six pairs of oxen and a cow, five rabbits in a pepper, four hens and a rooster, three white pigeons, two hemp birds, and one piece of grain.” Now we’re getting somewhere closer to the birds and the milking!!
Meanwhile, there is a counting song in the Faroe Islands that is sung from Christmas until the Lenten fast. The song accompanies a chain dance and lists gifts for fifteen days. These have been commemorated on postal stamps — one feather, two geese, three sides of meat, four sheep, five cows, six oxen, seven dishes, eight ponies, nine banners, ten barrels, eleven goats, twelve men, thirteen hides, fourteen rounds of cheese or butter, and fifteen deer.
So geese, cows, men. Interesting grouping and I feel we’re getting closer to the folk origins of the lyrics. Most of those who have pondered on these lyrics believe that their most likely origin is France, from a song called La Perdriole, which details gifts over 12 months to a loved one. Translated (by Maud Karpeles, ed., Folk Songs of Europe), they are: “The twelfth month of the year, What shall I give my sweetheart? Twelve young girls in their castèl, ‘Leven very fond young lads, Ten milking cows, Nine hornèd bulls, Eight snow-white sheep, Sev’n greyhound dogs, Six running hares, Five grey rabbits earth a-scratching, Four wild ducks a-flying low, Three wood-pigeons plump, Two turtle-doves/ And a little partridge/ That rises, flies and flutters/ O a little partridge/ A-flying in the woods.”
Not quite there, but getting closer. Where do the dancing ladies and leaping lords, pipers and drummers come in? There is nothing I’ve come across that refers to these. So I’ll have a go at my own interpretation. In ancient times, Christmas carols apparently were not only sung, but danced to as well, and often to musical accompaniment. It is quite likely that the dancing and music inspired these images of dancing ladies and leaping lords and instrumentalists.
And the calling birds? No, they’re not mynahs or parrots, though there is one English folk song that mentions “popinjays” (Sp. papagayos). The verse used to be “colly” birds, from “coal,” thus black or dark birds. And French hens? Anything foreign in England used to be termed “French.” Geese were traditional Christmas fare and perhaps swans too (though most swans belong to the British crown), before the turkey took over. There is an old English feasting dish of stuffing different sized birds into each other’s cavity and roasting the lot. And remember there’s that nursery rhyme of “four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.” The copious milk produced by those maids goes into all those custards served together with lashings of cream around the traditional Christmas plum pudding. Custard is properly English as the French call it crème Anglaise. And one needs lots of eggs to set the custard – so hens and geese a-laying. Thus to me is a description of an English (upper class) Christmas feast, with dancing and music galore. I guess my curiosity has been more or less satisfied. What about yours? Though there remain a few niggling things – what about that pear tree, for one? Let’s leave that for another day, shall we?
Meanwhile I leave you with an Ozzie version. On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me: 12 parrots prattling, 11 numbats nagging, 10 lizards leaping, 9 wombats working, 8 dingoes digging, 7 possums playing, 6 brolgas dancing, 5 kangaroos, 4 koalas cuddling, 3 kookaburras laughing, 2 pink galahs, and an emu up a gum tree. How about a Philippine version?
What’s to be thankful for on this 77th day of my grace journal? The fun of chasing up the origin of this Christmas carol and other old folk songs; a light snowfall that fell this morning and delicately dusted the lawn; a female blackbird on a branch, that I mistook for a robin, as its brown feathers were almost russet in the light; the little tits that fly in and out to peck at the bird feeders; and the joyful anticipation of family coming soon. Enjoy the spirit of this Christmas season everyone!