Well, here we are, right in the middle of the Christmas season. In the middle, you say? Maybe you’re one of those retailers who think that December 26 is the beginning of the Valentine’s Day season; not so, at least according to the Catholic Church. For them, the 25th of December is the beginning of a 12-day stretch during which no saints’ birthdays are celebrated (except for St. Stephen’s day, December 26—also known as the feast of Stephen…but that’s another carol).
From this 12-day block in the Church calendar we get the basis for the Christmas carol, “the Twelve days of Christmas.” Perhaps because of the song’s organization, it has invited parodies by everyone from Allan Sherman to the McKenzie Brothers. I don’t know about you, but I have always thought it was a little weird to have your true love giving you a bunch of different birds, then some rings, then more birds, then a bunch of farmhands, musicians, and so forth. But has anyone else noticed that partridges don’t spend much time in any kind of trees, fruit or otherwise?
I’ve come across a lot of well-meaning interpretations of this song that bend sideways to explain the Christian symbolism in the song, and I’ll spare you my axe-grinding quarrels with some of the justification for reading it this way. I’m just glad I have finally come across a book with a theory about the plan for this carol that floats better than a boat made out of whatever we had lying around the house.
Why a partridge?
Chico Marx’s “Why a duck?” in response to Groucho’s viaduct does one of my favorite things: it demonstrates what happens when two languages bump into each other: you often get sensible collections of words that sound like other sensible collections that are often goofy and sometimes hilarious. When it happens between English words, it has been termed a “Mondegreen” (thank you Ms. Glantz), and whole books have been devoted to the phenomenon. Furthermore, it’s the approach to the French language taken by F. S. Pearson, who translates the name of Joan of Arc, “Jeanne d’Arc,” as “no light in the bathroom.”
Thomas L. Bernard of Springfield College in Massachusetts has written a brief book, The Twelve Days of Christmas: The Mystery and the Meaning, that explains “The Twelve Days” on a similar basis; and I must admit that the title had me thinking “yeah, yeah, another guy capitalizing on this cute, weird little song, and probably with the same kind of vague interpretation that I’ve already seen a dozen times over.” But Prof. Bernard sells me on his work right away when he points out that the English phrase “a partridge,” and the French equivalent, “une perdrix,” when said one after the other sounds like you’re saying “a partridge in a pear tree” (especially if your French isn’t too good).
His explanation enlists literary history, geography and linguistics in its cause, and I won’t give away all the secrets. But the overall plan for the song, according to Bernard, is that it’s a way of memorizing important steps on a pilgrimage from London to Jerusalem—basically a way of memorizing a map for that route. For one more example, the second weirdest gift—the “eleven lords a-leaping,” (and Bernard also voices discomfort at this “somewhat nonsensical, even farcical” verse)—is explained as the next-to-last step on the pilgrim’s route, “Lors a Liban:” then to Lebanon.
My last apology for 2012
You might be ready for the book, but it’s not quite ready for you. We’ve just received it, and we might be well past all the leaping lizards and geese-a-laying before it makes it to the shelf; I’ll update this post with a link to it in the catalog once it does, though. But whatever the case, let’s all have it mastered by mid-December of 2013, and we’ll join in singing it as part of a fund-raiser for all the poor pear-tree growers that are put out of work once word gets out about what the song really means.