(Dear Readers: I apologize for missing the countdown yesterday; I was feeling unwell.)
On the first day of Christmas
My true love gave to me
A partridge in a pear tree.
When we think of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” we tend to think of the 12 days before Christmas (which would have started yesterday). The Twelve Days of Christmas, according to Wikipedia, are the festive days beginning Christmas Day (Dec. 25). This period is also known as Christmastide. The Twelfth Day of Christmas is Jan. 5, with the celebrations of Christmas traditionally ending on The Twelfth Night, followed by the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6. In some traditions, the first day of Epiphany and the twelfth day of Christmas overlap.
Over the centuries, different churches and sects of Christianity have changed the actual traditions, time frame, and their interpretations. St. Stephen’s Day (or Boxing Day), for example, is Dec. 26 in the Western Church and Dec. 27 in the Eastern Church. Boxing Day, the first weekday after Christmas, is observed as a legal holiday in parts of the Commonwealth of Nations and was traditionally marked by the giving of Christmas boxes to service workers (such as postal workers and trades people) in the United Kingdom. Dec. 28 is Childermas or the Feast of the Innocents. Currently, the twelve days and nights are celebrated in widely varying ways around the world. For example, some give gifts only on Christmas Night, some only on Twelfth Night, and some each of the twelve nights.
In Eastern Christianity (the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches) the Great Feast of Theophany (Epiphany) on Jan. 6 is considered a higher-ranked feast than the Nativity (Christmas), and commemorates the Baptism of Jesus rather than the arrival of the Wise Men. The twelve days beginning on Dec. 25 are observed as a fast-free period of celebration. The Armenian Apostolic Church and the Armenian Catholic Church, however, observe the Nativity of Christ on Jan. 6, and thus do not have a 12-day period between Christmas and Jan. 5.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church (and those Eastern Catholic churches which follow the Byzantine Rite) The Great Feast of the Nativity of our Lord begins on the Eve of Dec. 25 (for those Orthodox churches which follow the Julian Calendar, Dec. 25 falls on Jan. 7 of the modern Gregorian Calendar).
The Twelve Days of Christmas are a festive period linking together two Great Feasts of the Lord: Nativity and Theophany. During this period one celebration leads into another. The Nativity of Christ is a three-day celebration: the formal title of the first day is “The Nativity According to the Flesh of our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ,” and celebrates not only the Nativity of Jesus, but also the Adoration of the Shepherds of Bethlehem and the arrival of the Maji; the second day is referred to as the “Synaxis of the Theotokos,” and commemorates the role of the Virgin Mary in the Incarnation; the third day is known as the “Third Day of the Nativity,” and is also the feast day of the Protodeacon and Protomartyr Saint Stephen.
Dec. 29 is the Orthodox Feast of the Holy Innocents. The Afterfeast of the Nativity (similar to the Western octave) continues until Dec. 31 (that day is known as the Apodosis or “leave-taking” of the Nativity). The Saturday following the Nativity is commemorated by special readings from the Epistle (1 Tim 6:11-16) and Gospel (Matt 12:15-21) during the Divine Liturgy. The Sunday after Nativity has its own liturgical commemoration in honour of “The Righteous Ones: Joseph the Betrothed, David the King and James the Brother of the Lord.”
Jan. 1, at the center of the festal period, is another feast of the Lord (though not ranked as a Great Feast): the Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord. On this same day is the feast day of Saint Basil the Great, and so the service celebrated on that day is the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil. Jan. 2 begins the Forefeast of the Theophany. The Eve of the Theophany (Jan. 5) is a day of strict fasting, on which the devout will not eat anything until the first star is seen at night. This day is known as Paramony (“preparation”), and follows the same general outline as Christmas Eve. That morning is the celebration of the Royal Hours and then the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil combined with Vespers, at the conclusion of which is celebrated the Great Blessing of Waters, in commemoration of the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River.
There are certain parallels between the hymns chanted on Paramony and those of Good Friday, to show that, according to Orthodox theology, the steps that Jesus took into the Jordan River were the first steps on the way to the Cross. That night the All-Night Vigil is served for the Feast of the Theophany. In England in the Middle Ages, this period was one of continuous feasting and merrymaking, which climaxed on Twelfth Night, the traditional end of the Christmas season. In Tudor England, Twelfth Night itself was forever solidified in popular culture when William Shakespeare used it as the setting for one of his most famous stage plays, titled Twelfth Night. Often a Lord of Misrule was chosen to lead the Christmas revels.
Some of these traditions were adapted from the older pagan customs, including the Roman Saturnalia and the Germanic Yuletide. Some also have an echo in modern day pantomime where traditionally authority is mocked and the principal male lead is played by a woman, while the leading older female character, or “Dame,” is played by a man.
Many in the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth nations still celebrate some aspects of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Boxing Day (Dec. 26) is a national holiday in many Commonwealth nations, being the first full day of Christmas. Victorian era stories by Charles Dickens (and others), particularly “A Christmas Carol,” hold key elements of the celebrations such as plum pudding, roasted goose and wassail (hot cider). While these foods are consumed more at the beginning of the Twelve Days in Great Britain, some dine and dance in the traditional way throughout, all the way to Twelfth Night.
Nowadays, the Twelfth Day is the last day for decorations to be taken down, and it is held to be bad luck to take decorations down after this date. This is in contrast to the custom in Elizabethan England, when decorations were left up until Candlemas; this is still done in some other Western European countries such as Germany.
With the onset of more Americanized and secular traditions throughout the past two centuries (such as the American Santa Claus), the rise in popularity of Christmas Eve itself as if it were also an actual holiday, and of New Year’s Eve parties, the traditions of the Twelve Days of Christmas have been largely forgotten in the U.S.(We colonialists; we always have to do things differently). This is also heightened by the commercial practice to have after-Christmas sales begin on Dec. 26. Contemporary marketing and media tend to espouse the (erroneous) belief that the Twelve Days end on Christmas and thus begin Dec. 13.
However, a small percentage of Christians of many sects have held on to their own favorite ways to celebrate and those who choose to also have their own church to guide them in a spiritual way of marking this reverent holiday. Americans who celebrate in various ways include Christians of all backgrounds: Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Moravians and those of the Amish and Mennonite communities.
Today, some celebrants give gifts each of the Twelve Days, feast and otherwise celebrate the entire time through to Epiphany morning. Lighting a candle for each day has become a modern tradition in the U.S. and of course, singing the appropriate verses of the famous song each day is also an important and fun part of the American celebrations. Some still celebrate Twelfth Night as the biggest night for parties and gift-giving and some also light a Yule Log on the first night (Christmas) and let it burn some each of the twelve nights. Some Americans also have their own traditional foods to serve each night.
As in olden days, Twelfth Night to Epiphany morning is then the traditional time to take down the Christmas tree and decorations.
Myself, I take the decorations down on New Year’s Day. Really, the olde English tradition makes more sense, celebrating Christ’s birth after he’s born. We don’t celebrate the birth of children before they’re born; it’s bad luck. But we Americans are always in such a rush to do things.
But we still must tackle “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” the Christmas Carol, and it’s for the birds. Literally. Here’s Wikipedia’s information on the carol.
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is an English Christmas carol that enumerates a series of increasingly grand gifts given on each of the twelve days of Christmas. Although first published in England in 1780, textual evidence may indicate the song is French in origin.
Although the specific origins of the chant are not known, it possibly began as a Twelfth Night “memories-and-forfeits” game, in which a leader recited a verse, each of the players repeated the verse, the leader added another verse, and so on until one of the players made a mistake, with the player who erred having to pay a penalty, such as offering up a kiss or a sweet. This is how the game is offered up in its earliest known printed version, in the children’s book Mirth without Mischief (c. 1780) published in England, which 100 years later Lady Gomme, a collector of folktales and rhymes, described playing every Twelfth Day night before eating mince pies and twelfth cake.
The song apparently is older than the printed version, though it is not known how much older. Textual evidence indicates that the song was not English in origin, but French, though it is considered an English carol. Three French versions of the song are known. If the “partridge in a pear tree” of the English version is to be taken literally, then it seems as if the chant comes from France, since the red-legged (or French) partridge, which perches in trees more frequently than the native common (or grey) partridge, was not successfully introduced into England until about 1770.
The earliest well-known version of the music of the song was recorded by English scholar James O. Halliwell in 1842, and he published a version in 4th edition The Nursery Rhymes of England (1846), collected principally from “oral tradition.” In the early 20th century, English composer Frederic Austin wrote an arrangement in which he added his melody from “five gold rings” onwards. His version has since become standard. The copyright to this arrangement was registered in 1909 and is still active by its owners, Novello & Co. Limited.
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a cumulative song, meaning that each verse is built on top of the previous verses. There are twelve verses, each describing a gift given by “my true love” on one of the twelve days of Christmas.
It has been suggested by a number of sources over the years that the pear tree is in fact supposed to be a perdrix, French for partridge and pronounced per-dree, and was simply copied down incorrectly when the oral version of the game was transcribed. The original line would have been: “A partridge, une perdrix.”
Some misinterpretations have crept into the English-language version over the years. The fourth day’s gift is often stated as four “calling” birds but originally was four “colly” birds, or blackbirds. The fifth day’s gift of gold rings refers not to jewelry but to ring-necked birds such as the ring-necked pheasant. When these errors are corrected, the pattern of the first seven gifts all being birds is restored. There is a version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” that is still sung in Sussex in which the four calling birds are replaced by canaries.
In the west of France the piece is known as a song, “La foi de la loi,” the sequence being: a good stuffing without bones, two breasts of veal, three joints of beef, four pigs’ trotters, five legs of mutton, six partridges with cabbage, seven spitted rabbits, eight plates of salad, nine dishes for a chapter of canons, ten full casks, eleven beautiful maidens, and twelve musketeers with their swords.
In Scotland, early in the 19th century, the recitation began: “The king sent his lady on the first Yule day,\A popingo-aye [parrot]; Wha learns my carol and carries it away?” The succeeding gifts were two partridges, three plovers, a goose that was grey, three starlings, three goldspinks, a bull that was brown, three ducks a-merry laying, three swans a-merry swimming, an Arabian baboon, three hinds (male deer) a-merry hunting, three maids a-merry dancing, and three stalks o’ merry corn.
In Australia, a number of versions are sung, all of which replace the traditional gifts with items (mainly native animals) more likely to be found in that country.
The meaning of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” if it has any, has yet to be satisfactorily explained. According to The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, “Suggestions have been made that the gifts have significance, as representing the food or sport for each month of the year. Importance long been attached to the Twelve Days, when, for instance, the weather on each day was carefully observed to see what it would be in the corresponding month of the coming year. Nevertheless, whatever the ultimate origin of the chant, it seems probable the lines that survive today both in England and France are merely an irreligious travesty.”
A bit of modern folklore claims that the song’s lyrics were written as a “catechism song” to help young Catholics learn their faith, at a time when practicing Catholicism was discouraged in England (1558 until 1829). Variations in lyrics provide evidence against the “catechism song” origin. For example, the four Gospels are often described as the “four calling birds,” when in fact the phrase “calling birds” is a modern (probably 20th century) phonetic misunderstanding of “colly birds.”
As befitting a song honoring Twelfth Night, there have been many parodies of the song including:
• Green Chri$tma$, by Stan Freberg
• The Twelve Gifts of Christmas, by Allan Sherman
• The 12 Days of Christmas Local Style, written in 15 minutes by Eaton “Bob” Magoon Jr.’s, Ed Kenney and Gordon Phelps, as the three friends ate Chinese food in the living room of a Diamond Head home in 1959.
• The Thrifty Spendthrift, first appeared in the February edition of Walt Disney’s monthly “Uncle $crooge.”
• The Twelve Days of Christmas, by John Denver and the Muppets
• The Twelve Days of Christmas, by Bob & Doug McKenzie—Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, of Second City TV Fame, on their spin-off album Great White North.
• The Redneck 12 Days of Christmas, by Jeff Foxworthy
• Elmo’s 12 Days of Christmas by Sarah Albee.
Three french fries, two yummy cookies, and the writers in the Public Affairs Tree.