I was not planning an all-out series on Christmas songs some people have no time for, but just hunker down and we’ll get through this together.
In 1780, in a little publication called Mirth Without Mischief, the verse appeared in print for the first time, only slightly different from the way we sing it today. It was a chant, not a song, a kind of playground verse like “This is the House That jack Built” and began “The first day of Christmas, my true love sent me.”
Yes, that song that seems to go on forever has been going on for about two hundred and forty years. That version was remarkably similar, aside from the not very rhythmic opening, to the Correct lyrics we know today, although it did put the lords and ladies last, possibly as they were the most important. And for how many years people have been explaining the hidden symbolism of the lines, I cannot realty say. I know I started seeing thee things as filers in the newspapers when I was about ten, and I remember thinking, “What a waste! Who cares?”
But I hope YOU are not like that, egg nog enchilada, for we are about to discuss this line by line.
The partridge in the pear tree is fairly simple. A partridge was a gentle, pleasant bird, lovely to listen to and (remember, these were savage times) pretty good eating. A pear tree was considered in some cultures to be a symbol of generosity, for the way it gave its fruit. (Never mind that you jad to stand on tiptoe to pick it.)
Two turtle-doves is nearly as simple. Turtle doves were also gentle birdfs and the symbol of love.
I suppose it should be just as easy to figure out the three French hens: once again, mighty good eating. But why French? There is a clue in a version which makes it three fat hens, but I just don’t make the connection. Why would French hens have been fatter than English hens? Maybe the French fattened them specially for export. More research is required here.
We start to get into real trouble with the four calling birds. I love the illustrations of this which show magpies on the phone, but every commentator has to point out that this was originally four “Colley” birds. This is an archaic term meaning black: one version of the song actually makes it four coal-black birds. (The Interwebs has tried to explain to me that this is also where the collie gets its name, but the changes in dog breeds over the centuries is beyond the scope of this blog.) I cannot help feeling just a twinge of regret that the world decided not to go along with the version that made it “four curly birds”. Anyway, birds were calling from the sky long before we even had phones.
Where I most thoroughly resent the intrusion of logic into this song is in the Five Golden Rings. Sending jewelry to your true love is certainly traditional (and makes more sense than anything else on the list in our citified notions.) Alas, everybody needs to nudge you and say “Look at the other verse so far. This is five ring-necked pheasants.” Humbug.
Six geese a laying continued the theme of poultry, and, you’ll notice, continue the theme of giving the true love things which can enhance her financial status. A regular supply of eggs (presumably available from the other poultry as well) will be a step up in her assets, and, if she happens to be from that part of the world which eats goose at Christmas, why, she can spare one.
The seven swans a-swimming continue the poultry theme, and and give that true love some elegant birds which a. look nice, b. lay eggs, and c. were actually eaten at feasts. So the triple use of poultry continues.
With the eight maids a-milking, however, we abandon the poultry yard without a backward look. Oh, yes, there is a minor tradition which makes this Eight Hares A-Running, but that’s only for folksingers who want to be different. Milkmaids were a part of folk culture going back centuries. I presume, they brought their cows with them, as eight maids a-milkin’ without cows would be unsightly They can’t milk the geese.
From here on out, there is a genial confusion of who comes in what order, though the last four are fairly constant (despite some versions giving us lambs-a-bleating, bulls a-roaring, men-a-shearing, and so on. Bells a-ringing has its followers.) In most versions, ladies dance, lords leap, pipers pipe, and drummers drum, just not always in the same order.
I have been wondering about the ppipers piping. Is there a chance that we’re discussing bagpipes here? To judge by the versions which make it fifers fifing, I guess not.
My, this column has just gone on forever: I wonder whether it would take longer to read it aloud or to sing the song. Oh, and the Twelve Days of Christmas are December 25 through January 6, the day the Wise Men arrived at the manger (they had the best GPS available, so maybe it was the camels.) This negates the wonders of the quite excellent parody “The Twelve Days After Christmas”, but like every other trivia merchant I knew you’d want to know.