Deep in December, it’s impossible to avoid “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” the 18th century English carol celebrating true love, gift-giving and birds. The carol might benefit from fresh lyrics, so here are mine.
Deep in December, it’s impossible to avoid “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” the 18th century English carol celebrating true love, gift-giving and birds.
Originally published in 1780, it was a children’s memory game and the words were chanted as each player attempted to recite the lengthening list of gifts. The melody was added in 1909 by Frederic Austin, who presumably gave the middle line its elongated flourish, “fiiivvve gooollld riiinnngs”— a detail best left off the composer’s resume.
If it had never become a song, the multitude of leaping lords and milking maids might have disappeared — which would have deprived my father of a holiday tradition: chiming in with “I hate this song” whenever he came within earshot of the partridge and offending throng. That was as much a part of our Christmas as the shaky tree in the living room, tacking to one side like a sailboat in heavy seas.
A secret religious code?
Perhaps to make the carol more palatable, late 20th century revisionists attributed a hidden religious meaning to the Twelve Days, in which each gift represented a specific belief. True love, for instance, was said to refer to God; the seven swans, seven sacraments; and the eleven pipers, faithful apostles.
This interpretation proposes that the chant developed in response to Catholic-Protestant tension in 16th century England, and was a surreptitious catechism lesson for Catholic children. But the theory is challenged by debunkers at Snopes.com on the basis that the imputed beliefs are as common to Protestantism as Catholicism, and so would not have required secret transmission. Without divine intervention to elevate it, “The Twelve Days” remains, for detractors, the Christmas equivalent of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”
A new version
Personally, I don’t mind the song, provided exposure is limited. The Muppets’ version is my favorite, with Miss Piggy belting out, “FIVE GOOOOLD RINGS, BA DUM BUM BUM!” (See below!)
However, I do wonder about the preponderance of fowl — six of the 12 days feature gifts of birds: partridge, turtle doves, French hens, colly or calling birds, geese, and swans. Aside from the hens and geese, which could provide eggs, what was the recipient to do with all the rest? Stock an aviary?
The carol might benefit from fresh lyrics, so here are mine. Try these or write your own, and then perform them over the actual 12 days of Christmas 2013, from Dec. 25 through Jan. 6. If nothing else, we’ll find out who truly loves us.
The Twelve Smart Days of Christmas
On the 12th day of Christmas my true love gave to me:
Twelve consoling kisses,
Ten friends advising,
Nine coders weeping,
Seven new devices,
Six thrilling e-books,
Four “Downton” downloads,
Three apps to save time,
Two tiny earbuds, and
A smart phone delivered by drone