December 26, 2009

An urban legend in a pear tree

A co-worker recently brought up that modern myth about the origins of the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” and asked whether it was for real. This is the story that says the song is a coded reference to Scripture. "Five golden rings" stands for the Pentateuch, "Four calling birds" equals four gospels, and so on.

Some claim the song originated in the 16th or 17th century, during the period when English Protestants were persecuting Catholics. “Twelve Days” is said to be a sort of catechism song for teaching the tenets of the faith to children, with the premise that Catholics couldn’t put anything in writing for fear of imprisonment, torture or hanging.

Illustration © Michele Paccione • Fotolia

This origin story, as I told my colleague, is nonsense. It apparently was made up by someone who either couldn’t be bothered to look up the truth, or didn’t care. Like the bogus story about candy canes being the letter J for Jesus, the “Scripture code” story about the “Twelve Days” song is an attempt to cram religious symbolism into a folk custom.

There are several problems with the “Scripture code” story. Chief among them is that there would be no reason to “encode” such information, because the items cited are common to both Catholic and Protestant Bibles.

Also, the things that the items in the song symbolize change from one version of the story to another. For instance, the three French hens are alternately said to represent the Trinity; the virtues of faith, hope, and charity; or the gifts of the magi.

And what good is a catechism song only sung one month out of the year?

Actually, the song most likely originated as a “memory and forfeits” game for Twelfth Night (the Epiphany, Jan. 6). The “first day of Christmas” is Dec. 26.

In a memory and forfeits game, the leader sings the first line, and the players follow along. With each round, the leader adds a new phrase, and as people mess up—as we so often to once you get into the double-digits of this song—they are “out,” until only one player remains. It is in this context that the song was first published, in the book Mirth Without Mischief, in 1780. Similar songs are recorded earlier in French.

Whether by translation or through the passage of time, some errors appear to have crept in. The “calling birds” were originally “colly birds,” colly (or coal-y) meaning black, therefore “blackbirds.” And “five golden rings” may originally have meant ring-necked pheasants, making the first seven gifts all birds.

What one’s true love was supposed to have done with 28 birds, not to mention all those people, is not known. And it’s OK to not know. Not knowing is preferable to inventing falsehoods.

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