I have two favorite Christmas chorals; the haunting Carol of the Bells, composed in 1904 by Ukrainian Mykola Leontovych, and the seemingly nonsensical Twelve Days of Christmas, which is old enough that we have no idea who composed it. In fact, the Twelve Days of Christmas might even predate Christianity in France, where it originated. And that makes this English carol more interesting - to me, anyway – because it speaks to the evolution of the holiday. Remember, it wasn't until 137 years after the death of Jesus, give or take a couple of years, that the Bishop of Rome ordered a “Christesmaesse” - Christ's Mass, to celebrate Jesus' birth. You see, the twelve disciples did not celebrate Christmas, partly because they were Jewish, but mostly because until fairly recently anything from 60 to 80% of infants died within hours of their birth. Nobody celebrated their birth day, not even Pope Julius I, who around 345 A.D. picked December 25th for Christmas. For all humans, even for the Messiah, life did not officially begin until their epiphany, (meaning, according to thesaurus.com -the announcement, the display, the exhibition or the showing of the child), which was not held until you were pretty sure the child was going to live. And Jesus' epiphany is traditionally celebrated on January 6th – 12 days after Christmas.
This English Christmas Carol began as a medieval midwinter festival “memories and forfeits game”, a sort of musical chairs in a world without very many chairs. We know the game began in France because
the Red-legged (or French) partridge, widespread in medieval Europe, commonly perches in trees, unlike the the English (or grey) partridges which, while common today, were not introduced to England until the 18th century, and prefer ledges or cliffs. And in all three medieval French versions of the song that we know of, and all surviving English versions, “a partridge in a pear tree” is the first and final present always received by the lead singer.
In the game the leader sings a verse, and each participant repeats what they have just heard, and everybody then takes a drink of wine or mead. Then the leader sings another verse, adding an item, the players repeat, and then everybody drinks again. The rounds we have inherited begin “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gives to me, a partridge in a pear tree. On on second day of Christmas, my true love gives to me, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.”
The game continues (with variations) to three French Hens, four colly birds, five gold rings, six geese a-laying, seven swans a-swimming, eight maids a-milking, nine ladies dancing, ten lords a-leaping, eleven pipers pipping, and twelve drummers drumming. A player who forgets an item is eliminated and forced to offer a kiss to the leader, or eat a less than appealing food item. The game would continue until all 12 verses were done, or all the players but one had been eliminated. Sound familiar?
And yes, the line is “four colly birds”, as in a colliery, meaning a coal pit or a mine. The birds referred to were as black as coal – the common European black bird. When this song was translated into English, crows and ravens were only referred to as fowl. But the 4 ½ ounce Turdus merula (the black thrush), was small enough to be called a bird . In the winter black birds were easy to attract with seed and easy to catch with a net, and they were a common part of the diet. Peasants sang about “four and twenty black birds baked in a pie”. It is a reminder that there are huge chunks of our culture based on now forgotten starvation repeatedly suffered in each life time. And “break fasts,” like the midwinter festival, were fond memories, which Christianity had to adopt and adapt.
In fact, birds play a major role in this song, as if the leader was scanning the banquet table for the next noun to use in the next verse. The partridge is followed by turtle doves, french hens, the Colly birds, geese and swans. The five gold rings seem out of place unless they refer to the ring-necked pheasant, the male of which (above) has a golden brown plumage and a white ring around his neck. There would have been pheasants on any well stocked midwinter festival table, along with the other bird protein
There would also have been cheese (made from milk), and about the room, men and women dancing - but not in pairs, that would not become common until the 10th century. And of course there would be musicians accompanying the song-game with the world's oldest instruments, a flute (or a pipe) and a drum. Music was as vital a part of pagan religious and social celebrations, as they are of Christian services. And that brings up the recent myth that this game was used to preserve Catholicism in a hostile Protestant England. That might be true, except there is not even of hint of it until 1979. However, the success of this myth across the Internet since, does offer an insight into the methodology Christianity used to snatch Christmas from the happy pagans getting drunk at their winter solstice break fast. I am not suggesting a conspiracy, but rather a well meaning application of religiously influenced logic .That is also probably how Mithra over came Apollo, and how Jupiter conquered Zeus. It would be wise for all born again Christian evangelicals to remember that religions practices never really die, they just become adopted and adapted.
The same can be said about a certain odd mathematical aspect of the carol. If you add up all the gifts – 1 partridge, 2 turtle doves and 1 partridge, 3 french hens, 2 turtle doves and 1 partridge, etc., etc. – they add up to 364 gifts in total. It seems there ought to be some connection between the gifts and the length of the year. The only problem is a year is 365 ¼ days long, not 364, and that length has been well known since, well, since forever. And while it seems the number of gifts, like some sort of Christmas carol kabbalah, ought to mean something, it really doesn't. And that seems to me to be the difference between religion and science. In religion the possibility of meaning is the meaning, while in science the possibility is theory and subject to testing. Religion gave us the pyramids and Michelangelo's "David". Science gave us a modern infant mortality rate in industrial nations of less then 1%. Both have value.
Which brings us to the Christmas Price Index, created in 1984 by the chief economist for PNC Financial Services Group, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as “a humorous commodity price index to measure the changing cost of goods over time” using the gifts in The Twelve Days of Christmas. Each year in late November, PNC analysts consult with the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden and the National Aviary in Philadelphia to price most of the birds in the song. However, for some reason, rather than a European black bird, PNC uses the price of a canary at Petco. Gordon Jewelers, a division of Zale Corporation out of Irving, Texas, prices five gold rings for the Index, even tho, as I said earlier, the gift probably refereed to was five ring-necked pheasants. The maids-a-milking are assumed to be earning federal minimum wage, and the Philadelphia Dance Company and their Ballet Company provide the cost of leaping and dancing ladies and lords. The Pennsylvania Musicians Union provides the cost of the drummers and pipers, and the fruit tree has always been priced by Waterloo Gardens, an upscale Philadelphia plant nursery catering to the local 1%.
In 2012 the partridge and the pear tree together cost $189.99, the turtle doves $125 for the pair, the French Hens $165, the 4 Colling birds (actually Petco canaries) $519.96, the five gold rings $750, the 7 swans $7,000, and the 8 maids the same as last year at a mere $58 (which says something depressing about the minimum wage). The nine ladies and ten lords also cost the same as last year, at $6,294 and $4,766, respectively. The musicians were $2,562 for the wind instruments and $2,776 for the percussionists. In 2011 for the first time the cost for the Twelve Days of Christmas topped $100,000, up 4% over the year before. And in 2012 the total was $107,300. Surprisingly, the cost of buying the 12 days shopping on-line was 16% higher than buying the same gifts at a mortar and brick store. But then, PNC does not endorse their index as a valid gauge of the economy.
PNC admits they use the index to “engage clients”, which means they are trying to entertain bankers, a profession not known for their humor or humility. But, PNC also admits this annual nonsense economic measure has become “one of PNC’s most popular and anticipated economic reports.” I suspect that is in large part because it is “filler” used by media types to add a Christmas hint to their newscasts. However, this year, the results may have a slightly more telling comment on a changing America. In June of 2012, after 70 years in business, the “nationally renowned Waterloo Gardens” went bankrupt. It seems even the 1% are tightening their belts, which means their gardeners are beginning to starve.
Have a Merry, merry, Capitalist Christmas.
- 30 -