On the ninth day of Christmas, that is. Which happens to be… today. Seen any ladies dancing? Me neither. But somewhere on this planet there must be nine ladies dancing.The song says so, that’s why! Speaking of which, why would someone’s true love give them nine ladies dancing for Christmas? Sounds a little strange to me. Wouldn’t nine dancing lessons have been better? Oh well. Tis history.
Today is the ninth day of Christmas according to my count and only three more days remain in the traditional Christmas celebration. The song “12 Days of Christmas” is a popular one every holiday season, especially its refrain, “a partridge in a pear tree.” But have you wondered where it came from? And why all those seemingly strange gifts would be considered Christmas luxury? I mean, four calling birds? Seriously? How about 10 leaping lords? Are we talking real royalty here? Titles and lands and such? Strange.
Well, here’s the official Wikipedia history of the song:
The twelve days in the song are the twelve days starting Christmas Day, or in some traditions, the day after Christmas (December 26) (Boxing Day or St. Stephen’s Day, as being the feast day of St. Stephen Protomartyr) to the day before Epiphany, or the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6, or the Twelfth Day). Twelfth Night is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the evening of the fifth of January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of the Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking.”
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 song was imported to the United States in 1910 by Emily Brown, of the Downer Teacher’s College in Milwaukee, WI, who had encountered the song in an English music store sometime before. She needed the song for the school Christmas pageant, an annual extravaganza that she was known for organizing.
There. Understand now? To me, the song seems to show how different gift giving has become through the 300-or-more years of the song. Whereas birds and dancers were the “in” thing in 1770, now we give luxury cars and tablet computers; gift cards and scented hand cream. Maybe our gifts are better. But then again, who doesn’t like to see a parade? Drummers drumming and pipers piping; dancing ladies with leaping lords — sounds like quite a party! Who would forget THAT Christmas morning!
Still don’t know where the eight maids-a-milking fit in, though… Certainly didn’t see that in this morning’s Rose Bowl Parade!
Oh well, I guess I just wanted to say, Happy 9th day of Christmas!” And watch out for those dancing ladies. I think they may have had a bit too much New Year cheer.