Sunday, 27 December 2009

Twelve Days of Christ-mass

The traditions of Christmas have always fascinated me. It's amazing how often we know very little about them. Like the fact so many Nativity plays have everyone arriving together to worship the newborn baby in the manger. The shepherds, were told by angels, did arrive in time to find the baby in the manger...

...but the Magi (who were following the star) arrived later... after Mary and Joseph had left the Inn and were staying elsewhere.

Traditionally the day the Magi found baby Jesus is celebrated on the Feast of Epiphany - the 6th of January. It's not a well known holy day in Africa and I only knew it because we knew a South American family in the 1980s. In their culture it's these three Wise Men who leave gifts for children, just as they once left their gifts of Gold, Myrrh and Frankincense for a very important child.

It took me a while to realise that the 12th day of Christmas is Epiphany, the day we've always traditionally taken down our Christmas decorations. This year I was listening to the song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas", and realised I still don't know much about the days that lie between Christmas and Epiphany.

I went to do some snooping and discovered that the Twelve Days of Christmas are traditionally called Christmastide. They run from St Stephen's day, the 26th of December, till the Feast of the Epiphany on the 6th of January. In older times all twelve days were a holiday of food, fun and music. We seem to have lost out in our modern times!

So what about that famous song? Where does it come from?

Well, it's probably from France originally, but it has been sung in England for a very long time. There are mentions of it being sung in the 16th century.

The fourth day's gift is often sung as four calling birds but originally was four colly birds - blackbirds. Funny enough I learnt the words from a book of nursery rhymes I had as a child and in that they were called colly birds.

Another misinterpretation are the five gold rings. Apparently they meant ring-necked birds such as the ring-necked pheasant.

The first seven gifts were all birds: partridge, doves, hens, colly (black) birds, pheasants, geese, swans. Perhaps the birds all related to food that would be served during the 12 days of feasting? Swans were eaten in the past and "four and twenty blackbirds" were baked in the king's pie in another old song. Putting live songbirds into pies, so that they'd fly out when the pies were opened, was as much a "special effect" at parties as doves being set free at weddings is nowadays.

In some French versions of the song almost all the gifts are food. Wikipedia has the sequence as:
"... a good stuffing without bones, two breasts of veal, three joints of beef, four pigs' trotters, five legs of mutton, six partridges with cabbage, seven spitted rabbits, eight plates of salad, nine dishes for a chapter of canons, ten full casks, eleven beautiful maidens, and twelve musketeers with swords."

Sounds like a really good party!

Scotland has its own 19th century version too. It starts:
"The king sent his lady on the first Yule day a popingo-aye [parrot]; Wha learns my carol and carries it away?"

In this one the gifts are:
"..three partridges, three plovers, a goose that was grey, three starlings, three goldspinks, a bull that was brown, three ducks a-merry laying, three swans a-merry swimming, an Arabian baboon, three hinds a-merry hunting, three maids a-merry dancing, three stalks o' merry corn."

I notice the gifts don't grow in number, they stay either one or three items. Trust the Scots to be sensible! What I can't figure out is the gift of a baboon for Christmas...



Hayden said...

wow, thanks for that, I had no idea. Silly me, I hadn't thought to wonder what day the 12 days started... always assumed the countdown was to christmas, with it being the 12th day. But that's a little kid's greed for santa gifts showing!

love that it was about food, and that makes all kinds of sense.

Surprised, I guess, that the days don't start with the solstice. Maybe they did, once upon a time...

Connie said...

Very interesting, Michelle! I knew some of this, but not all. I never realized it was so much about the food.

Lori said...

This was all very interesting. I enjoyed learning this...Thanks for sharing!

Amel said...

VERY interesting!!! Here in Finland Epiphany is a public holiday. Never heard anything like this in Indo 'coz we have no such a thing. After all, Indo people don't really have Christmas traditions except just going to church to celebrate Christmas there and see Christmas plays and dances.

74WIXYgrad said...

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Bogey said...

Thanks for the history lesson Michelle. I have always loved learning how the Traditions of Chrismastide have come to grow from each country. It is definitely fascinating if not filling. And that is a lot of meat whether poultry or otherwise. I could hear my arteries hardening as I read. I guess it stands to reason that fruit's and vegetables during those times were considered a luxury. Hope you had a lovely Chrismtas.

Michelle said...


I always thought it was 12 days before too.

I have also wondered how come Christmas is close to Winter Solstice yet not on the day... deliberate or accidental? I wonder!

Hi Daisy

Ultimately... every holiday is all about the food. ;-)

Hi Smiles
Glad you enjoyed it. :-)


It wasn't a holiday in Africa either.
I love learning more about different countries and how they celebrate the holy days as well as the holidays. :-)


Hi Bogey

"I could hear my arteries hardening as I read."

LOL I know what you mean... The French version made me put on weight just reading it.

I read somewhere too how in an age before freezers most food eaten over winter would be things grown in summer and preserved. So... salted meats like ham, dried fruits and pickles are all on the tradional food list.

Thanks for the Christmas wishes. We had a lovely day... and best wishes to you for the new year. :-)

neena maiya (guyana gyal) said...

And now I'm HUNGRY!

Haha, look at all the days of merry-making now missing. Can you imagine so many days of eating and drinking?

Colly bird makes more sense, haha, calling bird is a 'mondigreen' then.

The Scottish word for parrot is interesting, in Portoguese they say 'papagaio'.

Michelle said...

Hi G~G

I love words and how they flow through countries and languages. Thanks for that extra bit. :-)

I get heartburn just thinking of all that eating in those songs! I ate way less this year than some Christmases. I just didn't feel in the mood for it.