Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Meaning Behind the Christmas Carol, The 12 Days of Christmas

What that partridge is really doing in a pear tree

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

IF you're anything like me, you've already started in with the seasonal singing. In fact, my wife, Annemarie, and I lustily sang the "The 12 Days of Christmas" Wednesday while shoveling out the cars. Good long song for a long, long driveway.

Like most people, we can get all the way to "eight maids a-milking" before arguing. Do the lords leap before the drummers drum or do the ladies dance after the pipers pipe? It's never easy, especially since every version ever published or recorded comes with a different order. Lose focus and you've got drummers leaping on ladies and pipers pipering lords - as anyone who's sung the song in a crowded bar on Christmas Eve may attest.

At any rate, it's all sung in the first person and has "my true love" bestowing "me" with presents 12 days straight. This would be fine, I guess, if it was a different present every day, but, no, the song keeps duplicating itself and triplicating the ante until you'd have to rent out every storage unit in town to house it all.

So today, we shall examine this anonymously composed carol, starting with that ubiquitous partridge in a pear tree. Fine. My true love has given me a stocky pheasant. Not bad. Stuffing, gravy, invite the gang over, burp and go home. Plant the pear tree in the backyard. Day 2, another stocky pheasant, another pear tree and with them, two turtle doves. Pigeons, in other words. My true love, whose humor knows no bounds, has given me another fat pheasant to pluck and cook, another tree to plant, and pigeons. Day 3 my lover does all that and adds three French hens to the mix. Yardbirds. What am I supposed to do with yardbirds?

Then come the four calling birds. Not just birds, mind you, or my true love would have simply said "four birds." By the time all this is through, I'll have 42 swimming swans, 50 egg-laying geese, 40 constantly milking maids and their cows, of course, along with pigeons enough to fill Central Park.

Decoding the symbols

OK, so the song's not to be taken literally. Symbolism is at work here. "The 12 Days of Christmas," many strongly feel - get this - is religious. Some speculate that it was a lute-accompanied method used to teach Middle Ages Catholic kids the tenets of their faith without anyone getting hung - that the seven swans a-swimming, furthermore, allude to the seven sacraments of the Catholic faith, and that the four calling birds represent the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I'm sorry, but that's the best we can do?

"It's sung with great gusto but with no understanding," said retired professor Thomas Bernard of South Hadley, who taught at Smith, Mount Holyoke and Springfield colleges. "The 12 Days of Christmas," he believes, from the partridge in a pear tree to 12 ladies dancing, may actually be a map, "a travel route for pilgrims to the Holy Land - Jerusalem, in particular," he said.

He's written a book, "The Twelve Days of Christmas: The Mystery and Meaning" that attempts to solve this age-old mystery once and for all. "Whoever wrote it did it with some purpose in mind," said Bernard, who believes that the pilgrimage in the song is most likely the account of one such pilgrim's journey, encoded in English, based on loose phonetic French transcription.

To be able to crack the code, one must appreciate that when countries invade one another, as William of Normandy did to England in 1066, they force their language on the conquered along with all the other bad habits. Though English was spoken by the masses, the official language was French, which led to the "fractured French" Chaucer often employed in Canterbury Tales. It may explain, Bernard says, why we have redundant phrases like "lord and master," "law and order," "ways and means," and that mainstay of police logs the world over, "lewd and lascivious."

"We're using two languages," said Bernard. "The origin of the English language may have much to do with Norman knights picking up Anglo Saxon barmaids." Or milkmaids, as the case may be.

A pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, from England to the faraway sands of Jerusalem, was not to be taken lightly. The pilgrim who made it there and back was promoted to "palmer," which in those dark days could be likened to a Ph.D. from a prestigious university, entitling the weary traveler to wear the coveted "palm-leaf insignia" and to walk down the street with crossed palms, the envy of all who pass.

"It changes your stature," said Bernard. "You are now a greatly honored person, the most privileged character in the community."

The "true love" in the song can be no other than God, he says, because anyone taking it upon himself to make such an ardous journey would have no other true love.

What all this leads to is "partridge," which when translated to French is "perdrix," which sounds like "pear tree," that "of a partridge" comes out as "een-uh pear dree." Then there's the similarity between the prefix of "perdrix" and the French word for lost (perdu) and you've got lost sinners setting out on a spiritual quest for salvation.

"With this, the die is cast, and the mold set for the rest of the riddle and the rest of the journey," said Bernard. The key, he says, is grasping the connection between plain English and cryptic French.

Two turtle doves? Watch this: The likely port to cross the English Channel is Dover. In French it is Douvres, and we, singers of songs and madrigals, are off, crossing the Channel by horse or by foot.

At the three French hens, there's a little misdirection on the author's part. If he intended to maintain an arcane measure of secrecy, to throw off those who might persecute hated Catholics seeking redemption at Christ's shrine in Jerusalem, he wouldn't say, "OK, just step into France." Instead, we're off to Gaul, if you prefer, or Gallus, or, as everyone knows, the Land of Hens. This is easy!

Four calling birds

OK, here we go. More serious deciphering must be employed here. "In code-breaking, you throw out the vowels," said Bernard. So "calling" becomes "clng," which becomes Cologne, and we are floating down the Rhine, pious and prayerful.

Now, take the French word for Rhine (Rhin), bring in a dash of matrimonial symbolism - as in these pilgrims' aforementioned marriage to God, their "true love" - and, of course, the association in Germanic folklore of the River Rhine with gold, not to mention Wagner's opera "Das Rheingold," and five golden rings are checked off the list and God is on the rudder.

To the south 100 miles is the River Saone (pronounced Sown, which gets you to swan, if you're up for some fractured French) and you can be sure the swans are swimming in Saone, and that leads down to Lyon, and, hopefully, geese a-laying. Again, take out vowels, and it's "laying" to "lyng" to Lyon. All well and good, but isn't it "six geese a-laying" and "seven swans a-swimming?"

Bernard figures that the order probably got messed up at some early date, too, just like the seemingly random positioning of 9, 10, 11 and 12. Applying the logic of the pilgrim route means you'd get to Lyon before Saone, a geographic nightmare, so the corrected order has the swans a-swimming before the geese a-laying.

After waving to the milking maids at Marseilles and crossing the Mediterranean, the seasick travelers land at Rome. Nine pipers piping have much to do with popes poping - the French translation of "pope" to "pape" gets us there in eye-popping speed, then the pilgrim, all pumped from his visit to the Vatican, is back in blue water, heading to Beirut. One might describe him or her, usually him, as coming from Rome, or "de Rome," or, as the French folks say, "duh rum," and we've got 10 drummers drumming and Bing on the Victrola and the sands of the Holy Land are sifting through our sandals.

Then to Lebanon, which translates as "lors a Liban." Need we say more?

Stage No. 12, "le douze." OK, they made it. Jerusalem. The Holy Land. Redeemed beyond recognition. Now all they needed was signed statements to bring back to England proof that they had done it. A sign, "d'insigne," if you will, something to distinguish themelves from the psuedo pilgrims who faked their journey like Rose Ruiz's win at the Boston Marathon.

"Put the two French phrases together," Bernard instructs: #le douze d'insigne ... luh-dooz-dahn-seen ... ladies dancing.'"

"It's not a monumental breakthrough," he grinned, "but, finally, an order that makes sense."

And I, for one, shall sing it this way at winter's next snowfall.

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