Over the past couple years, I’ve noticed that some of the holiday traditions that I’ve enjoyed for years are slowly disappearing. The thought was at first a little sad, but more recently I realized it meant the opportunity to create new traditions.
Last year, in an attempt to adopt a new tradition, I started sending out holiday cards that featured an illustration that I had also used as a component of the more typical gift giving.
This year, I decided I would like to continue the tradition, but I couldn’t decide on what the illustration would look like. Many options developed, including a few displayed below:
Unfortunately, I was not satisfied with any of these. I started thinking about what I could do in 2012 that would be better, more iconic, than just another winter holiday themed image. “Important” numbers started flowing through my mind: 2012, 12/12/12, 12/21/2012. Then it came to me:
The Twelve Days of Christmas.
Part of what made me interested in The Twelve Days of Christmas involved an incident over Thanksgiving, where I mistakenly claimed that one of the gifts in the song included “lepers leaping.” As I remember it, my brother was quick to point out that it was “lords-a-leaping,” and that receiving a group of lepers would be quite a poor gift indeed. Through this incident, the realization was made that I could not name all 12 gifts. This of course freed my mind, allowing me to imagine new gifts that could be given, such as leaping lemurs (quite the improvement over lepers) or Danny Partridge stuck in a tree, or…
What were the original 12 gifts?
The question needed to be solved, so a quick internet search later lead to an unanticipated result: there were more than just 12 gifts to choose from.
Now, any practical contemplation on the song, and realizing that it is quite old, would infer that yes, there would be many different versions of the song. Even today we have variations of the melody, including The Twelve Gifts of Christmas or The Twelve Days of Yaksmas. Yet, I never would have imagined that there would be previous incarnations of the song that included much better gifts, such as ships that sail or bears that fight!
Of particular interest to me was an old French folk-song.
Around 1998, an email started circulating inboxes that made claims about the “secret” history of traditional Christmas song The Twelve Days of Christmas. The email told a story about how the song was written in England as a coded reference to to tenets of Catholic faith as a way to skirt the ire of the English Parliament, when written evidence of practicing Catholicism could result in imprisonment at best, drawn and quartered at worst. According to the email, each of the gifts given on the twelve days correlated with a part of the faith; eleven pipers piping represented the faithful apostles, five golden rings represented the Pentateuch, and the partridge in a pear tree represented Jesus Christ himself.
In reality, as with many Christian traditions, the song is actually a relic of pre-Christian paganism.
In the book Chants populaires des Flamands de France: recueillis et publiés avec les mélodies originales, une traduction française et des notes, published in 1855, author Charles de Coussemaker writes about the song Le premier jour d’l’année, also known as Les Douze Mois or The Twelve Months.
In his description, he cites the song as being a traditional folk song derived from pre-Gaul druidic tradition.
The first verse…
…asks the question “What will my love give me on the first day of the year?” and answering with “one lone partridge that flies in the woods.”
The remaining verses…
…though slightly different than the gifts we typically associate with the Twelve Days of Christmas, follow the same format, asking what one’s love will bring, and answering with everything from the familiar turtle doves as well as a variety of other birds, to the strange, extravagant, and odd gifts of branches, windmills, and horned bulls.
De Coussemaker then follows up with a paragraph (seen above) describing how in it’s current state, the song has been extremely distorted. Despite that fact, he felt it important to publish in the collection out of respect for the country’s druidic heritage. He then concludes with a sentence about how the song has spawned several versions of the song where symbolic religious value is assigned to each hour of the twelve hour period.