Christmas Day marks the first of Twelve Days of Christmas.
As a child I wondered whose Christmas was twelve days long. Mine was only one. How could I snag a dozen of the grand days?
I Googled it, and here’s what I learned:
Supposedly, the Twelve Days of Christmas refers to the days between Christmas and Epiphany on January 6, the traditional date on which the Wise Men arrived to welcome the Christ Child.
The first known print version of the song appeared in England in 1780 in a children’s book entitled Mirth and Mischief. It was intended as a cumulative memory game.
The subtitle: “Sung at King Pepin’s ball.” Since the only known King Pepin, father of Charlemagne, ruled France 752-768, this suggests it originated in France a millennium prior to 1780.
Considering the antiquity of the song, it’s no wonder I scratch my head at a twelve days-long Christmas. And at the assorted birds and strange personages considered plum presents way back yonder.
Day 1: Partridge in a Pear Tree
On the First of Twelve Days of Christmas, my true love gave to me a partridge in a pear tree. Hmm. Pear trees don’t grow in my back yard. Furthermore, I wouldn’t know what to do with a partridge perched in a pear tree anyway.
But I’ve set up a Christmas tree or two in 75 years of life. The earliest tree in my memory wore a frock of silver icicles. Beneath her petticoats lay treasures for a 3-yr-old: a china tea set, a dolly in a carriage, and a rocker of my own.
Bright ornaments galore dangled in her boughs like partridges in pear trees. I recall their shapes. Colors. And textures. Here are a few ornaments from my childhood:
Day 2: Two Turtle Doves
This reminds me of my parents on all those Christmas mornings growing up. Often holding hands, they had way more fun sitting to the side watching us than we did opening packages. Their s
Day 3: Three French Hens
When asked what comes in 3s at Christmastime, who doesn’t think Wise Men? Or the three Christian virtues–faith, hope, and love–or the Holy Trinity? But if you peek into Mirth and Mischief, you’ll find another threesome: three French hens.
What’s so great about French hens? Well, the term crève-cœur refers to a broken heart. So maybe the poet figured a trio of Crèvecœur fowls, one of the oldest French breeds, could mend a maid’s broken heart thrice over. Besides, they’re known for their excellent egg production, meat quality, and friendliness.
Day 4: Four Colly Birds
On the fourth day our famous giver presents his true love four colly birds. (We now say calling birds, but the original is colly, which means black as coal–-the common blackbird.)
Check out Wikipedia’s recordings of blackbirds’ songs. They’re actually quite nice, which surprises me. The black birds that hung around our farm when I was girl produced a “caw” like crows. Not something you’d give someone you love.
Day 5: Five Gold Rings
Perhaps the giver of gifts knew he’d pushed his luck as far as he could. Better come up with something grand. Like a golden ring for each finger of his love’s left hand.
Works for me.
Day 6: Six Laying Geese
Now, if these six girls have been swimming with dandy suitors, they can produce a flock in less than a month.But if they’re bachelorettes, six geese can produce more eggs than the lady of the house cares to prepare. Their eggs can be two to four times the size of a chicken egg. That’s a lot of scrambled eggs, folks.
Geese are better watchdogs than … well, watchdogs. They’re supposedly credited with saving Rome from a total sack by the Gauls a couple thousand years ago. The dogs slept through the enemy invasion, but the geese created a racket that woke up the Romans and kept the house from coming down completely.
A word to the wise: Don’t ruffle the feathers of a gander. He’s one tough critter. Which reminds me of my mother. You didn’t mess with her kids.
Day 7: Seven Swimming Swans
Are there more graceful creatures in the world? Or more romantic? Sigh …
But what would I do with seven birds with a wingspan of ten feet each? I can’t imagine all seven trying to take off and land from the bird bath out back.
I love that swans are monogamous. And fierce protectors of their young. Something tells me that’s exactly why the suitor in this old song gave his loved one seven swans a-swimming. He was promising to be true to her not once but seven times seven! A sign of good things to come.
Day 8: Eight Milking Maids
Now I ask you … Why would a man woo his lady with eight unmarried women, milking or otherwise?
Apparently when the phrase “let’s go a-milking” was common, it communicated something akin to “let’s go spooning” or “let’s get hitched.” In that case, a maid and her milk cow could represent a marriage proposal. Eight maids and eight cows would knock off the recipient’s stockings. Why?Milk wasn’t just a nutritious drink, but from it came butter, cheese, buttermilk, yogurt, custards, etc. But it wasn’t as conveniently available in the 15th-19th centuries as in the 21st. No mechanized dairy farms. Plastic gallon jugs. Waxed cardboard half-gallons. Or refrigerated grocery shelves. Milk was only available to those who could afford to graze at least one cow or goat and a little patch of grass to feed them. Add many more, and they’d need a barn to house them, a large family or staff to milk them, and acreage to feed them.
To Milk or Not To Milk
Back when this song was created, a girl had to be born to–or married into–the wealth required for a stable of cows and milk maids. What girl wouldn’t want to marry an amorous fellow who could afford to give away eight cows and the girls to milk them?
This spooning dude possessed more than a single gold coin or two. Change jingled in every pocket as he hooked his thumb at his chest and declared, “Stick with me. I’ll take you a-milking.”
Day 9: Nine Dancing Ladies
Our groom has spared no expense. He’s gifted his loved one in abundance. The geese are laying. The swans are swimming. The birds are calling.
It’s party time!
The guests arrive–starting with nine lovely ladies, all of them, dancing.
Imagine what a colorful sight this medieval event must have been. I visualize brocade and silk gowns and a rainbow of bright veils and scarves.
Day 10: Ten Leaping Lords
As if the gifts thus far didn’t raise the roof sufficiently, on the tenth day of Christmas our suitor gives his loved one ten leaping lords.
Now the courtly men join the ladies in a not-so-ordinary display of dancing.
Men danced with swords or antlers prior to battle and at grand celebrations in the Middle Ages. Their accompaniment: drums and fifes. Their dances involved great leaps that signified power and fertility–the higher the leap, the greater the victor or harvest.
I must admit I haven’t a single memory of anything that comes in tens. Do you?
Day 11: Eleven Piping Pipers
Pipes (fifes) and drums were a part of the merriment music at medieval celebrations.
Not only is this groom affluent enough to purchase a bevy of fowls, he possesses enough property to house and maintain the birds and eight cows in barnyard, forest, and lake.
This guy has the means to throw a party his guests won’t forget. Our maid should prepare herself for some serious merrymaking.
Day 12: Twelve Drumming Drummers
Twelve drummers appear as the final act.
Imagine the display of wealth. Fowls and cows with their maids. Pipes and pipers. And ladies dancing with leaping lords. And now come the drums–twelve of them.
Imagine the racket!
A dozen drummers or days brings to mind … A child’s song from church when I was growing up went something like this: “There were twelve apostles Jesus called to help Him. Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and his brother John, Philip, Thomas, Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, Thaddeus, Simon, Judas, and Bartholomew.”
It’s a Wrap—the Christmas Kind
So there you have it, the Twelve Days of Christmas. A dozen days of feasting, music, and dancing. Twelve fantastic gifts. An ecstatic bride and groom. And a bunch of over-stuffed, partied-out guests staggering home.
What have I learned I must do to manage twelve days of Christmas? Take on the identity of a Middle Ages young woman. Catch me a wealthy man who can give me a ring for every finger of my left hand, a party worthy of song, and a grand estate with everything that goes with it.
I can accept a free gift from a lowly suitor – a Carpenter who loved me enough to die for me on a criminal’s cross. He’s preparing a world of rapture beyond my imagination, one that will last not twelve days but forever. He offers me perfect love with no strings attached. A wedding gown of purest white. Joy unending. Peace that surpasses understanding. And the name I love to hear, the one the angels will declare over and over forever: Jesus. Worthy is the Lamb who was slain.
P.S. Here are a few of the “days” featured on the Christmas tree skirt I made forty-five years ago:
~ ~ ~
Dear Lord, we acknowledge You as the reason for this season of celebrations. We celebrate not our own wealth by Yours—the gift of Your son. We offer You our praise and adoration and pray we’ll live the coming year in constant awareness of Your gifts of grace, love, joy, and peace.
~ For Jesus’ sake